Longer ago than I care to admit I bought a book entitled This Baffling World (for those who care the copyright was 1968 and it sold for $6.95 in hardback… I think I bought it in 1970). It contained a section on Oak Island and that is where I first learned about the Money Pit. There are very few cases where the exact location of the treasure is known. Most of the time, it is a shipwreck where the depth of the water, or the shifting of the silt on a river bottom has created problems for those trying to recover the loot. In one case, on Oak Island, the exact location of the horde is known down to the millimeter. Everyone knows precisely where the treasure is, even how deep it is buried, but no one knows how to get down to it or rather, I suppose, we should say that it was once known to the millimeter and people didn’t know how to retrieve it.
The story begins, for us, in October 1795 when three boys rowed across Mahone Bay to land on the shore of tiny, and at the time, heavily wooded Oak Island. Anthony Vaughan, Dan McGinnis and Jack (John) Smith decided to look around before eating their lunch. They found a clearing where a single oak towered over the open area. They noticed that a limb had been sawed off, that the stump showed evidence of ropes and tackle, and directly below it was a circular depression about twelve or fifteen feet in diameter. To the boys it looked as if something had been buried there long before or that is how the legend began.
Or, the story might have begun as early as June 1795. D'Arcy O'Connor reported in The Big Dig: The $10 Million Search for Oak Island's Legendary Treasure, that John Smith purchased Lot 18 on June 26, 1795 for something like twenty bucks... well not exactly that, but it shows how land values have increased (and given what has been recovered so far, that might be the real source of treasure). Lot 18 is, of course, the location of what was to become known as the Money Pit.
The boys knew that pirates had once roamed the area or so they had been told by their elders. They thought of buried treasures, chests filled with gold, and pots of gems collected from around the region or maybe from around the world. There were stories of lost treasures in the area and it might even be said that Captain Kidd was the man who buried the treasure on Oak Island. The boys believed they might have found one of his hidden caches.
The next day, the boys returned to the island, but this time they brought shovels and picks so that they could become rich. As they began to dig, they realized that someone else had dug there sometime before. The shovels slipped into the earth easily suggesting a hole or chamber that had been filled in. That would suggest that whatever was hidden there, hadn't been there long, certainly no more than a decade or two, at least to their way of thinking.
Only two feet down, they ran into the first real proof of something extraordinary. They found a layer of flagstones, which later investigation suggested had come from the Gold River, about two miles up the coast on the mainland. Someone had brought them to Oak Island, or so it seemed.
Ten feet down they came to a layer of oak logs. They broke through it, but found nothing below other than more dirt. They continued to dig and according to some sources they discovered a boatswain's whistle and a copper coin dated 1713 though some say they found it thirty feet down. Sure that they had were on the site of a buried fortune, they continued to dig.
At twenty feet, they hit another layer of oak logs. They broke through it quickly and were once again disappointed because they found only more dirt. They noticed that that the sides of the pit were of made of hard clay that showed pick marks, while the dirt in the center was soft and easy to dig through. Below that wooden platform, the ground had settled leaving a two foot gap.
At thirty feet they found another layer of logs but below found only more dirt. At this point they knew that the task would require expert help. They had dug down as far as they could without some kind of assistance and it seems amazing that they had managed to dig a hole so deep.
On the mainland, they failed to find the help they needed, because the farmers and fishermen already had enough work to keep them busy. Besides, many of those living on the mainland had seen strange night lights on the island for many years and they were afraid of what might be hidden there. Or they were afraid of those who might be watching. Either way, they weren’t all that interested in digging a hole for a rumored treasure when winter was approaching and they needed to prepare for that.
Smith, who later married, moved onto the island, where he would farm for many years and where he could keep an eye on the money pit. His fellow treasure hunter, McGinnis also farmed on the island. Both hoped to one day solve the mystery and be wealthy by recovering the treasure that just had to be there.
Syndicates Enter the Search
Nothing happened after the initial interest in 1795 until Simeon Lynds heard the story of the pit and the wealth it promised. He was so excited by what he learned that he formed a company, the Onslow Group, to excavate the Money Pit and that was financed by thirty fellow businessmen. They began their assault on the Money Pit in 1803. Their first task was to dig out the debris that had fallen into the pit in the eight years since the boys had been there. In short order they were down to the thirty foot level reached by the boys and by the middle of the summer, had dug out another sixty feet reaching down nearly ninety feet.
Every ten feet, according to the legend and the records left, they hit a layer of logs, but now they began to find other debris as well. Some of the log layers were reinforced by charcoal and putty and a strange fibrous material that was later identified as coconut husks. The closest coconut tree is more than fifteen hundred miles from Oak Island.
At ninety feet, on the log layer, they workers found a stone slab that legend suggests contained a strange inscription of symbols and dots. The slab was described as about two feet long, fifteen inches wide and ten inches thick. It weighed about 175 pounds eventually found its way into the publishing industry where it was used in a way that probably eroded the inscription if there actually have been one. It disappeared in sometime after 1919 without anyone photographing it.
Some sixty years later, about 1865, a professor claimed to have finally decoded the message on the stone. It said, "Forty feet below, two million pounds are buried." The code wasn't particularly clever and it's not explained exactly why it took so long to decipher but the reason might be an attempt to raise money for another try at getting the treasure. Descriptions of the stone have been reported in all the early accounts of the Money Pit, and hundreds, if not thousands, were reported to have seen it so there is no doubt that such a stone did exist; it’s just the inscription that is in dispute.
They pulled the slab out of the pit, broke through the wooden platform and kept on digging. The pit had originally been dry, but now water was beginning to seep into it. The workers were taking out almost as much water as dirt, but no one was concerned about it at that time. They probed the bottom with a metal rod, and at ninety-eight feet, hit something that a few thought might be a chest. With darkness coming, however, they were forced to stop work for the night. Remember this was in a world that didn’t have electric lights and without light there wasn’t much they could do.
When they returned the next morning they found the pit now filled with water. They began to bail, working steadily until sometime around noon. After several hours they noticed they were making no real progress. The water level had not been lowered at all. With this failure they abandoned the efforts for the year. It was late summer and the men had to return to the farms and fields. The company officers planned to return the following year and finish their quest for treasure.
In 1804, they returned and confirmed that it was impossible to bail out the pit. They decided to dig another hole, not far from the original pit and then tunnel over to the Money Pit. They thought would defeat the water by sneaking up on it from another direction.
They dug down more than one hundred fourteen feet and then began to tunnel. Before they could break through to the Money Pit, the ground began to seep water slowly and then began to flood. The men were forced from the new pit as the wall between their pit and the old collapsed. Soon the water stood at the same level in both pits. With that, they were forced to abandon their attempts. They realized that no amount of bailing would ever drain the pits. The treasure, which they were sure was still down there, and not very far away, was just out of their reach.
Smith, who still lived on the island, went back to farming. At some point he filled in both the pits. Although there were local legends about the treasure, and it seems that almost everyone in Nova Scotia was aware of the stories, no one could think of a way to defeat the booby traps that protected the Money Pit.
The Search Continues
In 1849 another corporation was formed to try to recover the treasure. Called the Truro Company, they thought that they could get down to the treasure. Dan McGinnis had died, but both Smith and Vaughan were still alive. One of them, probably Vaughan, showed the Truro Company engineers where the original Money Pit had been.
Once again they began to dig. In less than two weeks there were down about eighty feet. At that point, the water began to seep in again, and the workers were forced out. In an hour or two, the pit was again filled to the same level as before. The Truro Company was forced to abandon the attempt, but returned a few days later to erect a platform about thirty feet down, just above the water level. From there, using an auger, they explored, as best they could, what lay at the bottom of the pit. They confirmed a layer of wood at 98 feet that was five inches thick just as the early Onslow Company had found. Below that was an open space and then came the interesting discoveries.
According to a letter sent by Jothan (yes, that is the correct spelling) B. McCully he said:
...the auger dropped 12 inches and then went through four inches of oak; then it went through five inches of metal in pieces, but the auger failed to take any of it in except three links, resembling an ancient watch chain. It then went through eight inches of oak, which was thought to be the bottom of the first box and the top of the next; then 22 inches of metal, the same as before [meaning loose], then four inches of oak and six inches of spruce; then into clay seven feet without striking anything else...On withdrawing the auger, several splinters of oak, such as might come from the side of an oak stave, and a small quantity of a brown fibrous substance, closely resembling the husk of a coconut, were brought up.
For the first time there was real evidence that something had been hidden at the bottom of the Money Pit, and, that it was still down there. The gold chain links suggested a treasure, as did the loose metal, possibly coins or maybe jewelry. They were unable to recover anything else from the Money Pit, but the findings did excite them.
With these results, the Truro Company drilled several addition holes in the bottom of the pit but didn't find anything else as intriguing. Or rather something was found, but the two men who knew what it was never reported publicly on it. They took it away.
John Pitbladdo was the foreman on that crew. He inspected the bit and the core samples each time they were brought to the surface. John Gammell, a major shareholder in Truro, visited the site one afternoon and saw Pitbladdo slip something from the drill bit into his pocket. Gammell asked what it was but Pitbladdo said he would provide a full report at the next shareholders meeting. He didn't want to provide one man with an advantage over his fellow stockholders he said. He left it at that, but it wasn’t the stockholders he was worried about. It was something or somebody else.