Oak Island

What lies buried beneath this mysterious island? David Orkin investigates.

Written by David Orkin



Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia by NSTA

In 1795, Daniel McGinnis rowed across to Oak Island on a hunting and fishing expedition and chanced upon a clearing at the island’s eastern end. There was a lone oak tree with a branch overhanging a depression in the soil almost 4m in diameter. Putting these two things together, the youth assumed that the branch had been used to support a block and tackle pulley system which had been used to lower heavy objects into a now filled-in hole.

(Photo: Mahone Bay © Nova Scotia Tourism Agency)

Having been brought up on a diet of tales of wicked pirates sailing the waters of Mahone Bay and burying treasure chests in secret places, he returned the next day with two friends – and shovels and picks. When they started to dig, the young men found a layer of flagstones just 60cm underground. Having removed these, they dug on and found three layers of oak planks at 3m intervals. They realised that this was more than three young boys could manage. They headed back to the mainland and one of the boys purchased the lot of land on which the pit was found.

It was nine years before the boys returned: at first, the pattern continued, with more oak plank layers found at 3m intervals. Some of the oak layers were covered in coconut fibre, charcoal, and a putty-like substance. A large granite stone with strange, carved markings, indecipherable to the diggers, was found at a depth of 30m. It was later taken to Halifax, and disappeared in 1919 (but that’s another story).

The team took a day’s break and on their return, found most of the shaft flooded. All attempts to bail or pump out the salt water failed. Tunnels were driven in from all angles, but the water menace proved impossible to conquer. Channels were then discovered leading from the sea towards the site, but even after (what looked like successful) attempts had been made to block them, the water problems continued.

Since then, despite countless groups of hopeful searchers, digging, damming, diverting, drilling and blasting haven’t done the trick. Even Franklin D Roosevelt (later to become the President of the USA) was part of a 1909 expedition here.

Was ‘treasure’ buried here? If it was, who buried it? Almost as many theories have been put forward as attempts made to find it. The list of suspects includes Captain Kidd, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Henry Morgan, Edward ‘Blackbeard’ Teach, Acadians uprooted from their homes, Incas who fled the Spaniards, rogue Spaniards diverting Central American booty, Knights Templar, Rosicrusians (members of a philosophical secret society originating in medieval Germany), and (of course) aliens. Clue-wise, in 1965, an electromagnetic search of the site by students from Massachusetts found a late 16th-century Spanish coin. Over the years, several expedition members have reported seeing scary apparitions on the island. Two ‘regulars’ are said to be a man in a red frock coat who leaves no footprints in the sand, and a very large dog with red eyes that appears to stand guard at various sites on the island. More recent searches, studies and excavations suggest that an incredibly sophisticated series of tunnels and cavities connected to the sea lies underground: thus far, modern science and techniques is still losing out to the as yet unidentified engineering genius who designed and constructed it several centuries ago. By 1995, treasure hunters had managed to dig almost 60m underground: the treasure – if there is any – still has not been found. Well over 200 years have now passed since McGinnis made his find: six treasure hunters have lost their lives, including four who died after inhaling noxious fumes on a 1965 expedition. Ironically, regardless of whatever lies buried under Oak Island, literally millions of dollars have been spent trying to find it.

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