In the summer of 1795 a young Nova Scotian boy called Daniel McGinnis landed on one of the many small islands in Mahone Bay. He found signs of human inhabitation and an aged ship’s tackle block dangling from an old oak tree. Under this tree a slight dip in the ground suggested a hole had been dug and refilled. McGinnis excitedly believed he had stumbled across the site of a buried treasure hoard. He raced home to request the help of his two best friends, John Smith and Anthony Vaughan, and the next day they began digging in the hollow. They discovered a shaft 13 feet wide, and four feet down they found a platform of foreign flagstones. Ten feet down they found a layer of supporting log beams, and at 20 and 30 feet they found further platforms made of oak. The three friends realised they would need more manpower and better equipment, and returned home, eager to raise the funds needed for a more ambitious attempt.
Initially they failed, but in 1803 a local doctor called Simeon Lynds heard of Smith’s discoveries on Oak Island and was suitably interested to raise funds from among his friends. The new team dug in earnest and found platforms of logs and clay at ten-foot intervals. By the time they reached the 90- feet mark, the team was removing one bucket of water with every two buckets of mud. Late one evening they found what they thought was the last layer before the treasure. They had the next day off, and spent the time planning how to split their expected wealth. The next Monday morning, however, all but the top thirty feet of the shaft was filled with murky, muddy water. The group tried to bail the water out, but the level remained constant. They tried pumping the water out, but to no avail and abandoned that attempt. In 1805, the group decided to dig another, parallel shaft 110 feet deep, and then tunnel towards the expected treasure chests. But they dug too close to the original shaft, and the wall between the two cracked, filling the new tunnel with hundreds of gallons of water. Out of funds, the work ceased.
No subsequent attempt has been quite so close to rescuing the treasure, but more has become known about the shaft. It was discovered that a carefully constructed underground canal had been built. It ran from the beach, 500 feet away, and entered the shaft’s core. This meant that the logs and clay acted as an effective cork, which, once removed, allowed the water to rush into the chamber. Later efforts to drill into the shaft discovered wood from chest casings, loose metal such as coins, decorative metal chains, a layer of concrete, soft metal such as bullion, and even a piece of parchment with writing on it. This real, tangible evidence of treasure, and the obvious efforts of whoever hid it, has helped to promote and encourage continual efforts to raise the bounty.
The question of who owned the treasure has also baffled interested minds. The suggestion that it is Inca gold, hidden as the natives fled from Spanish settlers, has been mooted. There is the idea that it is a cache of British Army war chests, hidden as their forces retreated during the American War of Independence. However, in 1937, a New England businessman, Gilbert D. Heddon, researched the possibility that the wealth belonged to the well-known privateer, Captain William Kidd. Heddon hoped that by reading Kidd’s history he would find clues leading to details of a shaft’s contents. Like all others, his efforts proved fruitless.
By 1965 Oak Island had turned into a honeycomb of shafts and tunnels, so the American geologist, Bob Dunfield tried a method of brute force to find the treasure. He imported a 70-tonne crane and dug a hole 140 deep and 100 feet wide, but found nothing other than the remnants of earlier searches. In 1970, a new investment group called the Triton Alliance commissioned a complete geological study of the island. The report’s findings have never been released to the public, but it enthused the Triton group enough to excavate the site. They began a project called Borehole 10-X, which found pieces of brass, china and wood cribbing 200 feet down, but the project has suffered numerous problems.
Many locals claim that centuries of haphazard searching have left the island in such a mess that the hidden loot will never be found. Others still believe it might be possible to recover the hoard. But, for now at least, it looks as if the secret treasures of Oak Island are safely buried.