This is Part II of my series of articles on Oak Island, a small island in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada, where people have believed fervently for over 150 years that some fabulous treasure is buried, despite the total absence of evidence of any such thing. Part I, detailing the treasure legend itself and the first of four reasons why we know it’s false, is here.
In the last article, I asserted that no evidence for the “flood tunnels”—which are the key feature that prevent recovery of the supposed treasure, by flooding the main pit with seawater—has ever been found. Believers in the legend will dispute this. While no tunnels have been discovered, treasure hunters did find, in the 19th century, some very odd and suspicious structures on the beach at Smith’s Cove, a long distance from the treasure pit, which were sort of shallow pans lined with stones, stuffed with coconut fiber and covered over with sand. These structures, dubbed “box drains” or “finger drains” by believers, are said to resemble “fingers of a hand” pointing toward the treasure site. They were supposedly discovered in the 1849 treasure hunt on Oak Island. Invariably they are said to be the intakes for the flood tunnels. Clearly of human construction, why else would they be there except to siphon water in from the beach and channel it into the Money Pit?
What are these structures? The short answer is that they’re probably the remnants of an operation to cook salt on the beach. Who built them? Fishermen, probably in the 18th century. Why? They needed salt to preserve their catch, and in a cold climate like Nova Scotia you can’t just evaporate salt on the beach like you do in other parts of the world (and you can’t use a hjell to simply dry fish like they do in Scandinavia). How do we know these are salt works? Because under the box drains there was evidence that fires were laid on these stones for a long period of time—the soil exhibits scorching that looks exactly like that of other known beach salt operations. The coconut fiber is not exotic at all and the fishermen wouldn’t have had any problem getting it—it was common packing material in the 18th and 19th centuries, the way foam peanuts are today.
Salting was a way that fishermen have preserved their catch since ancient times. The “box drains” found on Oak Island were most likely part of an illegal fish-salting operation.
Why did they conceal the drains? Because salt was highly taxed in British America and they were probably trying to avoid paying the toll. Incidentally, while I don’t believe the “lights and fires seen on Oak Island years ago” part of the legend is literally true, if it is, a salt work of this kind would exactly explain what people said they saw decades before the supposed 1795 discovery of the treasure pit.
For a much longer and more detailed explanation of the technology of salt manufacture and why the Oak Island finger drains match what we know about it, see this terrific article. It’s very long but worth a careful read.
More importantly—why does this matter? No one would care about an old salt works on the beach on Oak Island unless it could be demonstrated to have something to do with the treasure pit, right? The reason why anyone cares about the box drains is because—and I stress this is the only reason—it’s supposedly the inlet to the “flood tunnels” that create the booby trap that makes the treasure so difficult to recover. The flood tunnels are the punch line of the whole story: without them the legend doesn’t make any sense. And, as we know from the previous article, the tunnels themselves have never been found. Believers in the legend conflate the flood tunnels with the box drains, but they’re two separate things.
Because there is so little real evidence for Oak Island treasure operations, the literature on the subject tends to be self-referential and unreliable, like this book from 1997.
If the box drains were connected to channels leading to the pit, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to follow these connections all the way up to the main pit. Then you simply block up the tunnels, wait for the pit to dry out, and go get the treasure, right? If it were this easy, this would have been done in 1849 (or 1861) when the drains were first discovered. But it wasn’t. Why? Because the box drains are not connected to any flood tunnels—which do not exist. Furthermore, the scorched soil under the drains proves they were not intended as water intakes, but as something else; there’s no conceivable way that laying fires in the drains could have been relevant to keeping the pit flooded.
There is no “hydrological engineering” on Oak Island. Not a trace of it has ever been discovered in over 200 years (supposedly) of digging. The box drains are part of an old salt works.
Point Two: There’s No Physical Evidence.
There is no physical evidence of any treasure pit on Oak Island. The “flood tunnel” hypothesis was created to explain why, whenever and wherever you dig a hole on Oak Island, it floods with seawater and you can’t pump it out or stop the flow. The answer for this is very simple: the highest elevation on Oak Island is 30 feet above sea level. If you dig a 100 foot hole, you’re digging 70 feet below the waterline. The water coming into the hole is natural seepage.
Oak Island in the early 1930s. If you look closely in the center of the picture you can see evidence of large-scale excavating operations, looking for that elusive treasure.
The main objection I’ve heard to this argument is that natural seepage is impossible because the soils of Oak Island are thick clay, not permeable gravel. That was proven false as early as 1867. There are some clay deposits, but they’re interspersed with much more permeable soils. A more recent geologic analysis bears this out, and matches exactly what was found when geologists first examined the island in 1867.
As for the “inscribed stone”—“Below here, two million pounds are buried”—the inscription did not become associated with the legend until the 20th century. The stone’s initial discovery has never been documented, and possibly was not even found in the 19th century or on Oak Island. The inscription is associated with New England folklorist Edward Rowe Snow, whose work I love—I’ve written several articles on my blog about him—but who was known for spinning tall tales with no basis in fact. Incidentally the stone has now disappeared (so far as I know). Convenient!
Other artifacts that treasure hunters wave around as “evidence” of a treasure burial—a shoe, pick handles, etc.—are most likely from previous treasure hunts, or were deliberate plants by various hoaxsters over the years. Archaeologists have never confirmed they were found when and where they’ve been said to have been found.
I don’t believe this is Oak Island itself, but this is a shoreline on Mahone Bay, the body of water in which the island is located. It’s quite picturesque.
Since the 1960s, attention has focused on a shaft called “Borehole 10X,” which supposedly connected to an underground, underwater cavern. Supposedly a camera was lowered down there and artifacts like a shovel handle or even human remains were seen. There was no proof of this—the videotape of the camera expedition conveniently never surfaced—but in any event divers went down “Borehole 10X” in 2016 and found nothing.
In short, there is no physical evidence that there was ever a treasure-burying operation on Oak Island. No tunnels. No cryptic markers that can be verified. Nothing that we can be sure was left behind by pirates or whoever supposedly buried the loot. There’s just nothing there.
To be continued!