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Articles and stories about the island and its treasure
THE OAK ISLAND TREASURE Graham Harris © This series of articles commenced as a monthly series written for a senior’s magazine in Prince Edward Island. The first article appeared in July 2008, the object being to raise the profile of Oak Island among readers, and bring to their attention some of the exciting history of treasure seeking, together with results of recent research. As is often the case a change of focus occurred during the writing, the end result being that the articles became more detailed and comprehensive than originally planned. The series is reproduced here by The Oak Island Tourism Society for the benefit of all readers of Scribes Corner. It should be emphasized that the opinions expressed herein are those of the author, who takes full responsibility for any omissions that may be perceived in the reading.The titles of the articles are as follows:- Introduction Part I The First Treasure Seekers Part II A Flood Tunnel is Discovered Part III Vital Clues Part IV Evidence of Underground Disaster Part V Evidence of ‘Who’ Buried ‘What’ Part VI Sir William Phips, the Forgotten Treasure-Seeker Part VII Military Intervention Part VIII The Search for Treasure 1900-1966 Part IX The Blankenship Years Part X Engineering the Smith’s Cove Cofferdam and the Flood Tunnel Part XI Theories Conclusion At the outset I would like to acknowledge the great assistance received from a large number of Oak Island enthusiasts on both sides of the Atlantic, especially that of Les MacPhie, a valued friend and colleague. It is always a pleasure to work with others in a spirit of true cooperation towards a mutual goal, and it is hoped this series will inspire further research to seek additional information and fill perceived gaps. The picture is fragmentary and far from complete. Introduction For over two centuries Oak Island, a small island off the coast of Nova Scotia, has held a mystery, for it has gained renown as the site of one of the world's last great treasure hunts. Over the years the island has witnessed much fruitless effort to recover that believed to lie buried there, and a steady stream of optimistic treasure- seekers, anxious to pit their wits against the forces of nature, has come from far and wide in an attempt to solve that 'mystery'. Oak Island, named from the profuse growth of timber it once supported, lies at the head of Mahone Bay, about 100 miles south of Halifax. The bay holds many islands, of which Oak Island is one of the most secluded, or was two centuries ago when the region was lightly settled.  The island, no more than about a half-mile long, hugs the mainland tightly and is connected to it by a short causeway constructed in 1965. My interest, and subsequent involvement, in Oak Island began in 1993. By profession I am a geological engineer, and part of my working life was spent underground in shafts and tunnels. As luck would have it I found myself in some of the deepest mines in the world, the gold mines of the Witwatersrand in South Africa. At over two miles below surface there was often more fear than fun in practicing one's profession. I mention this because I believe my experiences in those deep mines has helped shed light upon the 'mystery' of Oak Island. Perhaps without that experience the shroud of 'mystery' would continue to be as opaque as ever, with countless theories being advanced of 'who' did 'what', 'when' and 'why' with scarcely a scrap of supporting evidence. One definition of a ‘mystery’ is a series of events which defies rational interpretation. Nevertheless, in regard to the Oak island ‘mystery’ vestiges of evidence remain and it is expected that public interest will continue to mount for sensational times undoubtedly lie ahead. The island is a gem of history for three reasons. Firstly, it is the scene of two centuries of futile digging in search of treasure - a truly human and often tragic tale. Secondly, what was buried still lies unrecovered because of the geological obstacles that have confounded the treasure- seekers of the past, the significance of which we have just begun to appreciate. Thirdly, and more importantly, indications are that the island played a prominent part in one of the great upheavals of history, one that led to a revolution that shattered the balance of power in Europe, and which affected the destiny of North America. One day that story will become better known, more universally accepted, and a significant chapter will be added to the history of early Canada. Our story begins in 1795 when a young man, exploring the forest undergrowth, stumbled into a clearing amidst the primeval oaks. There, in its centre, stood a massive oak bearing a sawn off limb, from which was suspended an old, weather-beaten block and tackle. Immediately beneath lay a depression in the ground that immediately gave rise to hopes that here might be pirate treasure. As the well-known pirate, Captain Kidd, had gone to his execution in 1701 vowing his treasure to have been buried on 'an island in the Indies', and his treasure had not been recovered, the treasure on the island was confidently predicted to be his. Fuelled by such dreams he returned the next day with two friends armed with shovels. They uncovered a layer of flagstones beneath the grassy sod, and found themselves within a circular pit of about 13 feet diameter that had been previously excavated through the stony ground. They began to clean out the soil-infilling to the pit and encountered a platform of timber logs at a depth of ten feet.  Further platforms were subsequently encountered at regular intervals which had been staging for those who had worked the pit last. Strong farm youths though they were the trio were forced to give up their clandestine work at a depth of 30 feet. The 1795 discovery promptly spawned a sequence of treasure-seeking ventures, and the last 200 years has seen a steady stream of individuals and consortia eager to risk their fortunes in the pursuit of greater riches. Few, in the past, appear to have had any appreciation of the underground hazards they faced, or any inkling of what might be buried there or by whom. Theorists have advanced many names over the years, and created fantastic scenarios of 'who' may have buried treasure on the island. Captain Kidd's name continues to be advanced by some, whereas others prefer more illustrious individuals drawn from British sources, such as Francis Drake, Martin Frobisher, and other Elizabethans. Europeans are favoured by others, for Spain, Portugal, and France were all maritime nations active on the high seas in the run up to the 1795 discovery. Some claim the treasure to have originated with the Incas who, in some mysterious way, transported vast amounts of gold across the Andes in their flight from the Spanish conquistadors, and set sail for a northern sanctuary. Others claim the treasure to be the missing crown jewels of France or Scotland, unpublished manuscripts of Francis Bacon or William Shakespeare, Egyptian artifacts, the wealth of the Knights Templar taken from Jerusalem, the treasure from the sack of Havana in 1762 or that of Panama in 1671, or the shaft was simply dug by aliens from an unknown planet to aid future conquest of Earth. In summary there is not one scrap of archival information, or fact, which can reasonably be accepted as giving credence to any of these often wild and fanciful theories. In Part XI of this series some of these theories are given consideration. Despite the lack of support for any specific theory, compelling evidence suggests there is indeed a valuable treasure buried at great depth. A series of boreholes put down between 1967 and 1971 provides some of the most tantalizing evidence; a number of cavities having been proved within the bedrock at a depth of between 195 and 210 feet from surface, some roofed with thick timber and iron plate. Artifacts dating from the late seventeenth to eighteenth centuries, such as axes, picks and oil lamps have been recovered and, more excitingly, fragments of Ming china and traces of mercury. Although no gold, silver or jewels have yet been found, the evidence to date suggests the treasure will prove to be that of a Spanish galleon. A long-forgotten incident of maritime history appears to lie at the heart of this perplexing, and fascinating, enigma. Part I: The First Treasure Seekers The young men, Daniel McGinnis, Anthony Vaughan and John Smith, soon gave up their  attempts to penetrate the depths of the island, valiant though these were, as legend tells they managed to clean the pit out to a depth of 30 feet. It may be assumed their 1795 discovery was discussed with their families, but despite this it was not until 1804 that a more persistent attempt was made to extend the diggings. News of the Money Pit, as it was to become later known, was divulged to Simeon Lynds of Onslow, Nova Scotia, who was related to the Vaughan family. He and some friends formed a syndicate to continue the digging which was to become known as the Onslow Syndicate. The Island was witness to frenzied activity over the following two years as the group pursued the dream of buried treasure. In the end their activities were to prove futile, but nevertheless information of value was obtained. The group managed to exhume the Pit to a final depth of 93 feet. There is no mention in the records of their having encountered oak platforms at ten foot intervals, as reported originally, but it may be assumed these had once been present as reference is made to layers of charcoal, putty and coconut fibre being found at regular intervals as the diggings were deepened, together with a “mark every ten feet” in the sides of the shaft, which may have remained from platforms previously in place. Long after the Onslow Syndicate had departed the scene, a James McNutt, who was involved in further attempts in 1863, and who appears to have been a participant, or at least a witness of the earlier work, mentions “at forty feet a tier of charcoal; at fifty feet a tier of smooth stones from the beach, with figures and letters cut on them; at sixty feet a tier of manilla grass and the rind of a coconut; at seventy feet a tier of putty.” All of these materials are likely to have been utilised by those engaged in the original diggings prior to the 1795 discovery, though the observation that the stones had “figures and letters cut on them” should perhaps be taken with reservation. Charcoal has a variety of uses, including purification of water on ships, and as an ingredient of gunpowder. It is also a valuable fuel. During the seventeenth century a technique began to be adopted which helped overcome the greatest obstacle faced by an underground miner - foul air! The method of providing clean air to those toiling underground was to establish a furnace at a depth of 30 to 40 feet from surface, generally accepted as the maximum depth a small diameter shaft can be excavated without recourse to ventilation. The foul air would be sucked up from the working face at greater depth by means of a pipe, and burnt in the furnace. The result is a downdraught of clean convective air which descends the shaft - who of us, at one time or another, has not sat in front of an open fire with our toes toasting and our backs freezing? The layer of charcoal discovered in the pit thus yields a vital clue, for this method of ventilation did not become widely practiced by the mining world until after 1665. It may be concluded, therefore, that charcoal had once fuelled a furnace within the pit. This helps date some of the underground work. Putty was reported to have been removed from the Pit in large quantities, sufficient to glaze the windows of many houses in the Mahone Bay region. The beach stones and coconut fibre exhumed may have mystified the diggers of the Onslow Syndicate at the time, but their significance will become apparent as our story unfolds. A large slab of stone was found at a depth of 90 feet. It is reported that it had an inscription cut into its lowermost surface in “rudely cut letters and figures .... they could not decipher it, as it was either too badly cut or did not appear to be in their vernacular.” From what we know the slab was 36 by 15 inches, and 10 inch thick, and weighed about 500 lbs, though smaller dimensions and lesser weight are often reported. The stone appears to have had a very chequered career before its final disappearance in the 1930s. During the 120 odd years of its existence it formed part of a fireplace on Oak Island, before being taken to Halifax in an attempt to decipher the inscription. At one point it was displayed in the window of a bookbinder. Though it was reported “it had become so defaced it was illegible” various renderings of the inscription have been published, the most popular being “FORTY FEET BELOW TWO MILLION POUNDS ARE BURIED.” If it did indeed carry cryptic markings it is difficult to understand why it was treated with such scant respect as to be built into a fireplace. It is equally puzzling that its purported message was only made public in the 1860s, at a time when funds were being sought for a much later treasure-seeking venture. Though it is certain the stone actually existed some doubt must be cast upon its encrypted message, if indeed such a message was ever inscribed. Since then the stone has vanished. At a depth of 93 feet serious inflows of water began to seep into the Pit, with one cask of water being hauled out for every two of moist earth. Probing ahead with an iron bar a hard resistant surface was encountered at a depth of 98 feet, which appeared to extend across the entire shaft. The treasure-seekers must have been excited with the prospects of treasure so close! As it was a Saturday work was halted for the weekend, and not resumed until the Monday. The fury and chagrin of the workers can be imagined when, on their return, they found the Pit full of water which had risen to a depth of 33 feet, coincident with sea level. A high capacity pump was put into operation, but this failed to make headway against the influx of water. The following year (1805) the Onslow Syndicate attempted to get at the treasure, which they perceived to lie within their grasp, by excavating a shaft adjacent to the Pit and 14 feet away. Digging through the tough glacial till was more toilsome than removing the soil infilling of the Pit itself, but they managed to attain a depth of 110 feet without serious problem or major influx of water. They then excavated horizontally towards where the imagined treasure lay. About two feet away from their target water and debris poured in and flooded them out, and those underground at the time were lucky to escape with their lives. In less than two hours the new shaft was full of water to the same level as that within the Pit. The syndicate did not renew their treasure-seeking activities, and 40 years were to elapse before another set of adventurers tried their luck. Part II: A Flood Tunnel is Discovered Four decades elapsed before the search for treasure was renewed in 1845. It is likely the three who discovered the Money Pit in 1795, as well as others, may have carried out some probings of their own in the interval, but there is nothing to suggest any unreported activity might have proved fruitful. A new group of searchers gathered their resources to make another assault on the Money Pit. This group became known as the Truro Syndicate, some members having been connected with the earlier group (the Onslow Syndicate), who had seen their hopes vanish so spectacularly after the workings had been flooded. Active work recommenced in 1849 with cleaning out the collapsed excavations, which had combined to form a single pit full of water and debris. It took a mere 12 days to re-establish themselves at a depth of 86 feet, a few feet above that attained by the previous group. It being Sunday morning the men went to church in Chester, and when they returned they found the water in the shaft had risen to a level coincident with the sea. Attempts to lower the water by bailing proved unsuccessful, so to explore to greater depth they decided to put down auger holes from a platform erected inside the pit at a depth of 30 feet, i.e. three feet above sea level. Five holes were put down penetrating to depths from 106 to 112 feet (as measured from surface). The first two holes encountered nothing but mud and stones, but the next three produced tantalizing evidence of great wealth just beyond their grasp. A statement records the following - “The platform (found in the Pit in 1804) was struck at 98 feet just as the old diggers found it, when sounding with an iron bar. After going through the platform, which was five inches thick, and proved to be of spruce, the auger dropped twelve inches and then went through twenty-two inches of metal in pieces; but failed to bring up anything in the nature of treasure, except three links of 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 twenty-two inches of metal the same as before; then four inches of oak, then six inches of spruce, then into seven feet of clay without striking anything.” Who can blame them for believing they had found tangible evidence of treasure - treasure in wooden casks on a platform of wood at a depth of 105 feet? This boosted their morale, despite their inability to lower the water in the pit. Surely it could be only a matter of time before the treasure was won! Some exaggeration regarding the nature of the treasure is understandable under the circumstances. Seventeen years later, one of the diggers declared the ‘three links of watch chain’ to have been three loops of copper wire. However, he also added that grass and putty were encountered in the borings, similar to that found earlier at higher levels within the pit.  An incident happened after drilling the fifth hole, the truth of which has never been determined. James Pitblado, the foreman, was carefully scrutinizing each fragment of material brought to surface on the auger blades. It is reported he hid something on his person, and soon after left the island, following which he attempted to buy the property with a partner. Whether anything of real value was brought up by the augers, or Pitblado had covetous designs, as might be inferred, will never be known. The following year another shaft was dug to a depth of 109 feet, with the object of recovering the treasure by again approaching it from below. The procedure duplicated that of their predecessors, and the result was the same - water and soil burst into the shaft, the water slowly rising to sea level. The men barely escaped with their lives, but one fell into the water and discovered it to be salty. From this they concluded the Money Pit to be linked to the sea. An intense search was made of the shoreline, and resulted in an amazing discovery. In a nearby cove, known as Smith's Cove, about 500 feet from the Money Pit, they observed water oozing out of the shingle more than elsewhere when the tide was ebbing. This excessive oozing occurred over a 145 feet length of beach, at the ends of which were large boulders. The grouping of these boulders suggested they had been deliberately removed from the beach in-between. Convinced they had discovered the inlet works of a tunnel linking the sea to the Money Pit they began digging, and within a few hours they had uncovered a cunning system of drains leading to an intake. This was obviously intended to supply the pit with water and maintain it in a flooded state. The drains, five in number and eight inches square internally, were formed of large flattened stones laid within a thick blanket of smaller cobbles and gravel. The drains, and this blanket of free-draining material, had been sandwiched between layers of grass and coconut fibre to prevent clogging by natural siltation. The drains converged into a larger drain sloping inland towards the Money Pit. The diggers turned their attentions to exposing more of this water intake system, with a view to destroying its link to the Money Pit. By 'turning off the tap' they hoped to be able to drain the pit. The sequence of their activities is confusing with shafts and other excavations put down with this aim in mind, but their efforts were to no avail - the connection could not be intercepted or broken, and the water continued to flow. Yet another shaft was dug adjacent to the Money Pit, with the purpose of again reaching the treasure from below. This shaft extended to 112 feet, and as they dug towards the treasure they were flooded out, again barely escaping with their lives. With their funds exhausted the Truro Syndicate gave up their thankless task. Nine years elapsed and then another group of adventurers tried their luck. The Oak Island Association was formed in 1860 and, wary of making a frontal assault on the Money Pit, they opted to dig a shaft some distance to the east of the pit and drive a tunnel towards the treasure. Again the tunnel was inundated with mud and water. It was the fourth attempt to reach the treasure by this method - and the fourth failure. A strenuous effort was then made to bail out the Money Pit itself as well as adjacent shafts. It is reported that 63 men and 33 horses were engaged on this enterprise. Activity came to a sudden close, however, when the timbering within the Money Pit collapsed, leaving only the top 30 feet intact. However, the bottom of the pit was plumbed immediately after and found to be at a depth of 102 feet, when a few hours earlier it had been at 88 feet. The inevitable conclusion was that the platforms containing the treasure had either dropped fourteen feet vertically, or had been dislodged sideways into the bottom of one of the adjacent shafts (of which there were several) that had been dug to approach the treasure from below. The company engaged on further excavation in the vicinity of the Money Pit in attempts to get at the treasure, but failed to make any headway against the constant inflow of water. As a result they turned their attentions to Smith's Cove to try and block the inflow of water by sealing the filter drains with clay. This was not successful either, and in 1866 they gave up and ceded their rights to a group that became known as the Halifax Company. An intricate flood tunnel system had been found which could not be overcome. The construction of this system is now considered to be a masterpiece of engineering, one which today's engineers would be hard pressed to emulate with such crude materials. A later article will describe ‘why’, ‘how’, and ‘when’ the tunnel is believed to have been built, for such an understanding is crucial to resolving the Oak Island ‘mystery’.  Part III: Vital Clues The next group of treasure-seekers on Oak Island, known as the Halifax Company, commenced their activities in 1866, but these were short-lived lasting only a year. Nevertheless, the company can be credited with one of the most important discoveries concerning the Flood Tunnel, one which had proved a stumbling block in gaining access to the treasure. Some distance from the Money Pit they dug a shaft to a depth of about 110 feet, then began digging tunnels towards where they thought the line of the Flood Tunnel might be, in the hope they could intercept it and bleed away the water flowing towards the Money Pit. With the benefit of hindsight this was somewhat foolish as one of their tunnels did encounter it in startling fashion. The foreman in charge, Mr. S.C.Fraser, describes the encounter as follows - “..... the water hurled rocks about twice the size of a man's head, with many smaller [rocks], and drove the men back for protection. We could not go back into the shaft again for about nine hours. Then the pumps conquered and we went down and cleared it out.” Later reports describe the Flood Tunnel as being filled with “... round stones, such as are found abundantly on the beach and fields around the island”, and give the internal dimensions of the Flood Tunnel as 2ft 6in wide by 4ft high. The internal dimensions of the Flood Tunnel are above average interest. They may be considered too small for comfortable working today, but these dimensions were common in numerous mines in the British Isles in the two centuries prior to the discovery of the underground workings in 1795. Furthermore, these dimensions were standard in military engineering for siege tunnels, i.e. tunnels excavated beneath enemy fortifications for purposes of demolition. It is doubtful whether the Halifax Company realized the connection, but today the evidence points to (a) that there was indeed a British connection, and (b) this connection involved the British Army. During their limited tenure on the island the Halifax Company attempted other work, but their only other noteworthy achievement was more drilling in the Money Pit, this time to a depth of 163 feet, over fifty feet deeper than previous drilling by the Truro Syndicate in 1849. The drilling proved disappointing as no sign of any treasure was found, but the results showed the Money Pit shaft to extend to a far greater depth than previously thought likely, and to be filled with a variety of materials, e.g. wood, gravel and soft clay intermixed with quantities of charcoal and coconut fibre. The results also suggest a number of cavities within the shaft, presumably formed by the supporting timbers that had collapsed from higher up when the platforms carrying the treasure had mysteriously plummeted into the depths. How deep was the Money Pit? No one knew then, and still to this date its depth remains uncertain. Our best estimate now is about 210 feet. It was not until 1894, an elapse of seventeen years, before another group of treasure seekers took up the challenge. In the meantime, however, an incident of particular note occurred (1878). The eastern part of the island was being farmed by Sophia Sellers and her husband. One day, Sophia was ploughing with a team of oxen when a ‘well-like’ hole opened up beneath her. The oxen were rescued, but the hole was filled in with boulders to prevent any re-occurrence. The location of the cave-in, now commonly referred to as the Cave-In Pit, was later affirmed to apparently lie directly above the Flood Tunnel between the Money Pit and Smith's Cove. Tunnellers always prefer to excavate tunnels on an upslope. This helps to keep the working face free of water, and to assist in the removal of excavated material. Also, tunnellers are not so foolish as to tunnel towards the sea unless they are confident about the nature of the ground ahead of them. Immediately, therefore, it may be concluded the Flood Tunnel was excavated by digging from two ends - one being within the Money Pit itself, the other from a shaft at Smith's Cove. The ‘cave-in’ experienced by Sophia Sellers and her oxen was likely close to where the two met, a ventilation shaft being provided at this point. In this case the ‘cave-in’ likely resulted from inadequate backfilling of that shaft on completion of the work. The Oak Island Treasure Company, led by Frederick Blair of Amherst resumed work in 1894 full of confidence and brimming with enthusiasm. The first task they undertook was to re-excavate the Cave-In Pit, and by so doing soon found themselves in a circular shaft of six to eight feet diameter which had been part of the original Flood Tunnel works. The shaft was cleaned out to a depth of 55 feet, at which point they were flooded out by sea water, the water rising to tide level. It is obvious that Sophia Sellers and her team of oxen had stumbled upon the location of an old ventilation shaft, one which had been filled in after completion of the Flood Tunnel. The company then set themselves the task of more fully cutting off the water supply to the Money Pit via the Flood Tunnel. This they managed to largely accomplish by drilling holes across the line of the tunnel at Smith's Cove, and letting off charges of dynamite. When detonation occurred the water in the Money Pit is reported to have boiled and foamed. The Money Pit shaft was reinstated to a sufficient depth to expose its intersection of the Flood Tunnel. This confirmed the dimensions of the tunnel to be 2ft 6in wide by 4ft high, and infilled with smooth beach stones as previously reported by the Halifax Company in 1867. The crown (or roof) of the tunnel was at a depth of 110 feet while the invert (or floor) was at 114 feet. Though water flows had been curtailed to some degree by the blasting, water still entered the Money Pit, and once the intersection with the Flood Tunnel had been exposed the water in the Pit soon proved unmanageable with the pump capacity available. The water soon rose to a level coincident with sea level. About this time a man fell to his death when a hoist-rope broke. After more pump capacity had been provided the water stabilized at about the 100 foot level and it was decided to put down more borings within the Money Pit itself. A total of five holes was put down up to a depth of 188 feet. Some intriguing evidence was recovered. The main purpose was to determine, if possible, the depth to which the treasure chests had fallen following the collapse of the supporting platform in 1861. The treasure had been supposed to be supported upon a platform of logs at the 105 foot level, i.e. a few feet above the intersection of the Flood Tunnel with the Money Pit. The fact that the drill holes penetrated to 188 feet, twenty- five feet deeper than those put down by the Halifax Company almost thirty years previous, was cause for speculation. The Money Pit was certainly deeper than any had thought! They did not give much thought as to why the Money Pit was so deep, or why the drilling was so easy. Perhaps they should, but their minds were elsewhere for new tantalizing evidence was discovered (or so they imagined) of metal bars and coin buried in a cement vault at a depth of between 153 and 160 feet from surface.