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Anomalous, Haunted Places

Fool’s Gold: why there’s no treasure in the Oak Island “Money Pit.” [Part I]

See the video version of this blog, here:

For a long time now, I’ve wanted to do a series of articles about one of the greatest and most fun historical mysteries of all time: the famed “Money Pit” on Oak Island, Nova Scotia. This is a subject that has fascinated me for over 25 years, but I’ve never written about it, largely because I know that the response to my thoughts on the mystery will very likely be quite negative. It’s fun to believe in buried treasure, and fantasies on this order strike chords in all of us that go back to our childhoods and are parts of our deep identities. Explaining why there is no buried treasure on Oak Island—despite alleged searches for such a cache going back more than 200 years—is, in one sense, a fool’s errand: no one wants to believe there’s nothing down there. But it is 2017, and we’re being daily bombarded with falsehoods, spin and “fake history.” If truth is something we still value, it’s worth telling it about Oak Island, and in any event it’s still a thrilling story as well as a fascinating puzzle of logic and historical analysis.

First, let me cut to the chase, especially as this is going to be a lengthy article in a series of lengthy articles. There is no treasure buried on Oak Island. If there ever was—and I have serious doubts about this—it’s certainly not there now. Despite at least a century and a half of expeditions to recover the “treasure,” and despite a History Channel reality TV show (which I have not seen) that squeezed 44 episodes’ worth of blood from the stone of this rather crude 19th century scam, there is nothing of particular value buried under Oak Island to find.

Oak Island, in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, is fairly small. Here is the satellite image. Most of the treasure hunt action has occurred on the southeastern end (the light-colored splotch).

Here is how we know that there is no treasure on Oak Island. I’ll be dealing with all of these factors in-depth in this article and the three additional ones that follow, but here are the highlights:

    1. The “flood tunnels” believed to be blocking the recovery of the treasure have never been found.
    1. There is no physical evidence of an elaborate treasure hoard infrastructure on Oak Island.
    1. Reliable documentary evidence of the early treasure searches, where much of the proffered “evidence” for treasure was supposedly discovered, does not exist.
  1. Even if the legends are true, it’s not logical that whoever buried the treasure would have abandoned it. (In other words, if there ever was treasure there, it’s illogical to assume it’s still there now).

Before I get to these reasons, it’s worth sketching out what the legend is, because it’s invariably where believers in Oak Island treasure start—and they often don’t make it any farther than that.

The Legend

It’s difficult to know where to begin talking about Oak Island, because there is no one story, no single set of allegations that agree with each other about how it started and what supposedly happened in the past. I first encountered this legend in 1991 when I was a college undergraduate studying history. I came across it in a very fun but seriously fact-challenged book called The Encyclopedia of Unsolved Mysteries by Colin Wilson and Damon Wilson, which had the usual stories of Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monster, etc. The Money Pit article was easily my favorite because it’s the only one that seemed like it could be really true. Just for purposes of choosing one narrative, I’ll stick to the one as told in the Wilsons’ 1991 book.

According to them, in 1795, three teenagers—Daniel MacGinnis, Anthony Vaughan and John Smith—were exploring Oak Island, an uninhabited island in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia when they noticed a depression in the ground beneath an oak tree, which is usually said to have an old rusty piece of ship’s tackle hanging from one of its branches. They started digging, and encountered several platforms of oak timbers, each 10 feet below the next, going down at least 30 feet. Realizing something big was buried here, they abandoned the search, but decided to come back years later with a more well-funded expedition.

This book, by Colin and Damon Wilson, was a lot of fun when I first read it 26 years ago, but it’s seriously fact-challenged. I lost the dust cover long ago. It ignited my interest in Oak Island.

Several expeditions, some with the involvement of members of the original trio, are said to have occurred in the first half of the 19th century, usually dated as 1803 or 1804, and another in 1849. Supposedly the expeditions found the oak platforms went down at 10-foot intervals for at least 90 feet. However, the farther the dig progressed, the more the hole became saturated with seawater, occasionally rushing into the pit at high speed as if under pressure. Proponents of the legend universally state that this is due to two “flood tunnels,” specifically connecting the Money Pit site to the beach, evidently designed to thwart recovery of whatever’s buried there by anyone who doesn’t know the secret of how to shut off the “flood tunnels.”

This is the bare bones of the legend. There are numerous other rumored details, such as a claim, usually said to date from the 1849 expedition, that various wooden chests were found beneath the 98-foot level, and that a drill inserted (underwater) into the “chests” brought up pieces of wood and some small links of gilded metal, like a chain of some kind. There are also reports of stones found, either in the Money Pit or elsewhere on the island, bearing various inscriptions, most commonly “Forty feet below, 2 million pounds are buried” or something to that effect. All the various alleged details and discoveries could fill a book, and in fact they have filled numerous books written on the Oak Island legend over the years. While there are commonalities, few reports agree absolutely on these details.

Point One: No Flood Tunnels Have Ever Been Found.

One feature of the legend that all accounts do agree upon is the existence of the “flood tunnels,” which pipe seawater into the Money Pit whenever anyone digs for the treasure. Indeed, this is the linchpin of the entire story: the water pouring into the pit is the booby trap that confounds all attempts to recover the treasure. Every single expedition to get at the supposed treasure has, at its core, been a struggle against the water.

This photo–I’m not sure when it was taken–depicts one of the early 20th century expeditions to dig for treasure on Oak Island. The results? Bupkus, every single time.

But there’s just one feature, which astonished me when I realized it: the flood tunnels themselves have never been located. Although they appear in every single permutation of the Oak Island legend, no one has ever actually found human-constructed channels leading from the traditional dig site to the beaches, which are some distance away in all directions. There was, I believe, one claim of a flood tunnel discovery from the 19th century, but it could not be verified.

Shouldn’t this be easy? If you’re digging a pit into the earth and are being thwarted by an influx of seawater from two directions—there are said to be two flood tunnels, sometimes even three—shouldn’t it be fairly simple to find the source of the water, then discover the channel it’s coming in from—especially since one would assume the channel, being human-engineered, would be lined with stone or a primitive pipe or something?

There is evidently some kind of resort on Oak Island. Here it is at sunset in 2011.

Nothing of the kind has ever been found on Oak Island. Indeed, the existence of the “flood tunnels” is taken entirely on faith. The only explanation I’ve ever heard for the failure to locate the tunnels themselves is that multiple treasure hunts over the decades have obliterated the original site discovered by Vaughn, MacGinnis and Smith, and it’s hard to know where to look. But here’s the thing: Oak Island isn’t that big. If it’s cris-crossed by flood tunnels, they have to be there, somewhere. They’re not, because they do not exist.

To be continued!

In the next installment, I’ll explain why the “box drains” found on the beaches of Oak Island are not evidence of “flood tunnels,” and various other misconceptions about the physical artifacts found on the island. Stay tuned!
The photo of the Oak Island Resort is by Flickr user Stefani Woods and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 license. The other photos are either by me (the book), courtesy of Google (satellite image) or in the public domain/Creative Commons 0 license (all others).


  1. Don Potter

    If they cannot get to the so called vault or money pit with modern machinery … how could they have buried it so deep with shovels… like you said ..the only money pit.. is where the investors keep dropping there money in search of the money pit

  2. well we have the 2 brothers draining the place, nothing found. the cable companies made their money. bottom line type into Google is there anything in this tale, you are told right off there is no truth in the rumour. I just watched another conspiracy. the whole thing is boring and should be killed off, done and dusted.

  3. Thank you Sean !!! Oak Island is a bogus hoax wrapped arund a scam !

  4. Steve Rockey

    This is a glass half empty thread. On either side of the argument is pure speculation .
    The Lagina Bros and friends have invested millions.
    Fool Hardy? Perhaps
    But one never knows unless an attempt is made.But pirates and others have hidden their wealth , and for one reason or another were not able to return.
    Their mission is a needle in a haystack but there is nothing wrong with having a dream

    • No, actually “glass half empty”/”half full” is, I think, the wrong way to characterize this, because it projects the illusion that it’s just a matter of perspective, or that either outcome–either there’s treasure there or there isn’t–is equally likely. It isn’t. Since there hasn’t been a shred of credible evidence, either on the ground at Oak Island or in the historical record, that there was ever treasure there, one must conclude that the logical and rational case is overwhelmingly likely: there’s nothing there and never has been. A logical and rational case on one side, versus a hopeful wishful-thinking case based entirely on (as you correctly identify) pure conjecture, is a lopsided match, not an equal one. I suppose the Lagina Brothers are free to waste millions of dollars of their own and other fools’ money on digging holes in the ground for no other benefit than creating revenue for the History Channel’s advertisers, but we should at least be honest that the basis of their efforts is fanciful, not rational.

      • Chas Rossi

        Just the artifacts alone are a story in itself, what were people of french decent doing on the island in 14th and 15th century? why was there a large military presence as multiple military buttons, hat crest have been found? And explain how at 100 foot deep pieces of pottery and bones of European decent are found? far more questions need to be answered the lazy way out is to just dismiss as a hoax.

        • Nope. How do we know there were French people there in the 14th century? Because some talking head on a fraudulent gonzo TV show said so? There is no historical evidence of migration of Europeans to the New World in the 14th century. None at all. Why don’t you explain why millions of dollars have been wasted on this hoax with zero evidence of treasure being discovered after all of that effort and six lives lost? You’re excited by buttons and a few pieces of pottery? Wait, I thought it was supposed to be the lost plays of Shakespeare and the Knights Templar treasure down there, but yet the discovery of a military button is supposed to thrill us? Nonsense. I remind you that the show airs on the same network that thinks “Ancient Aliens” are a thing. I guess if you put something on television there will always be some gullible sucker out there who will believe it.

  5. Jennifer DePaolo

    I watch it and watching it now the History Channel. I have always said “they’re wasting their time because there’s nothing there” and people have argued with me. Theres been so many people that have tried to find this so called treasure. Theres nothing there. Period. They are finding things on this island and then getting “supporters” to invest in something that doesn’t exist. Ridiciulous. If they want to spend their money on something, i’ll gladly take it.

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