Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Oak Island Money Pit

Whether or not there is any money under Oak Island is now pretty much a moot point with regards to its worth as a story in the grand traditions of swashbuckling epics. It is a tale of hope, faith, tragedy, failure and stupidity. 

Our story begins in 1795 with a sixteen year old boy named Daniel McGinnis. He made a discovery on the Nova Scotian Oak Island while fishing which would, over the next two centuries, cause people to lose their minds, and sometimes their lives. It was just a simple circular depression in the ground. The depression was under a tree and suspended from the overhanging branches was a tackle block (a type of pulley). This piqued the interest of his young, pirate adventure filled mind and he and a couple of friends (John Smith [in early accounts, Samuel Ball] and Anthony Vaughan) decided to "excavate" it.

A few feet down they discovered a layer of flagstones and I suspect at this point they all gave each other knowing grins. A pulley system, a hole and signs of protection on an island on the Atlantic seaboard? Did somebody say "treasure"?! As they continued to dig, and I'm sure with a little more enthusiasm now, they noticed the walls of the pit were pitted with pick marks and at every 3 meters they found a layer of logs. 30 feet down (that's 10 metres for folks like me) they decide to give up, probably not without much soul searching. They promised to come back and continue where they left off once they were better prepared. Whilst there was some talk in the press of the discovery, it took another 8 years before anyone returned to the Money Pit.

Daniel, Anthony and John plus Simeon Lynds formed the Onslow Company and set out from central Nova Scotia to resume digging. With time and media attention making the find seem remarkable, they now had the backing of an eager workforce willing to work for a slice of the treasure. This time they managed to get to 90 feet down and found layers of logs about every ten feet (3 m) and layers of charcoal, putty and coconut fibre at 40, 50 and 60 feet (12, 15 and 18 m). Now this is where things take a turn for the interesting. Supposedly at 90 feet they found a large stone with inscriptions upon it. Various people tried to translate it with one coming up with "forty feet below, two million pounds lie buried." Wishful thinking or amazing detective work? Sadly, but unsurprisingly for such a story, the stone disappeared in the early 20th Century.

The Onslow Company's dig had begun experiencing problems with visibility and waterlogging on the Saturday following their discovery and after breaking through another layer of logs they called it a day. The next day was Sunday and by the time they returned on Monday the pit was flooded up to the 33 foot mark. After a brief attempt to bail out the water, the project was abandoned until the next year. That next year they tried to drain the pit by building a second shaft, but this ultimately collapsed and, finally defeated, they accepted the treasure was not to be theirs and left the island for good.

Many years later, in 1849, the Truro company was formed by investors and they excavated down to 86 feet before the pit flooded once more. But they weren't going to let that put them off. They decided to drill deeper to see if they could recover any further evidence of what might lie beneath... the drill passed through a spruce platform at 98 feet (30 m), a 12-inch head space, 22 inches (560 mm) of what was described as "metal in pieces", 8 inches (200 mm) of oak, another 22 inches (560 mm) of metal, 4 inches (100 mm) of oak, another spruce layer, and finally into clay for 7 feet without striking anything else. A diagram of the dig at various stages can be found here to make this all a little clearer!  Frustrated by their lack of real progress, they gave up the dig.  

In 1861 a new company, the Oak Island Association, began a new attempt but the curse of the Money Pit would strike again; this time the bottom of the shaft collapsed (depending on your viewpoint either into a natural cavern or into a bobby trap). Then disaster following disaster there was the first, but not the last, fatality on a Money Pit dig when the boiler of a pumping engine burst. By 1864 the company had exhausted their funds and their options and, inevitably, they gave up. At least 8 further attempts would be made between then and the 1960s (including one in 1909 which featured a rather famous prospector; Franklin Roosevelt!) and most met with no success. One fared worst of all when a worker fell to his death in 1887.

In 1928 Gilbert Hedden read about the mystery in a newspaper and it wasn't long before he'd purchased the part of Oak Island which contained the money pit. He eventually began excavating in 1935. He attempted to dig where he thought a previous secondary shaft had been excavated in 1897. He dug 163-foot down and found several pieces of work gear and a Cornish pick. But given the amount of work carried out he couldn't ascertain whether this was from a previous dig or from the original excavation that supposedly created the Money Pit. In the 1960s the excavation was brought into the modern age with the use of a 70-ton digging crane with a clam bucket to create a huge pit, over a 100 foot wide and 134 feet deep. Despite this nothing was found. Sadly tragedy struck once more and four people lost their lives when they were overcome by fumes in the shaft.

In the late sixties Triton Alliance arrived on the scene and bought most of the island. In 1971, Triton workers excavated a 235-foot (72 m) shaft supported by a steel caisson to bedrock. According to Blankenship and Tobias, cameras lowered down the shaft into a cave below recorded the presence of some chests, human remains, wooden cribbing and tools; however, the images were unclear, and none of these claims have been officially confirmed. The shaft subsequently collapsed, and the excavation was again abandoned. This shaft was later successfully re-dug to 181 feet (55 m), reaching bedrock; work was halted due to lack of funds and the collapse of the partnership. The pictures are thought to be so fuzzy you could really see anything on them. But this still hasn't daunted diggers!

Until recently excavations had stalled due to continuing legal wranglings in Triton Alliance. But in 2008 a new company Oak Island Tours Inc has arrived on the scene to follow in the footsteps of their predecessors. This year work has begun to investigate whether to restart excavations on Oak Island

So is there really treasure in the Oak Island money pit? Could it possibly be just a sinkhole? Wouldn't that be ironic.... but it is one of the more likely theories regarding the money pit. But let us not dwell upon this too sensible, heartless theory and instead ponder who might have buried treasure on Oak Island? Many of the more romantic treasure hunters believe it is pirate treasure and not just any old pirate! Some believe that Captain Kidd used the island to store his treasure before he died, and Gilbert Hedden even traveled to the United Kingdom to follow up his belief that this was the case. These theories are given greater credence by the supposed booby trap elements, and the possibility that there is an elaborate network of "flood tunnels" leading from Smith's Cove there to frustrate any attempts to get to the treasure. It'd make One-Eyed Willie proud!

Others believe French army engineers, hoping to hide the contents of the treasury of the Fortress of Louisbourg from the British, dug the hole which might explain the complicated construction. And if you thought these theories were grand, you haven't heard anything yet... some believe a servant of Marie Antoinette managed to persuade the French Navy to hide her jewels here. And no that's not the most out there explanation. There are those who believe that the last works of Shakespeare are buried under the Money Pit and some even believe the Knights Templar (those stock conspiracy theory guys used to explain every mystery ever) buried the Holy Grail here! Now that would be a turn up for the books.

Millions of all sorts of currencies have been spent attempting to excavate this pit, in search of possible unknown amounts of treasure. 6 lives have been lost and people have spent many years of their life dreaming of what may be lying below their feet. But nothing concrete or substantial has ever been found... only tantalising hints and clues, just enough to keep hope alive and ensure that people will probably still be trying to excavate the pit in a hundred years time. And who can blame them? Whether it's a sinkhole, a hoax or buried treasure one thing the pit has offered up is a sense of adventure, purpose and mystery. Maybe that is the real treasure after all.

Further Reading

Lost Treasure of the Knights Templar: Solving the Oak Island Mystery by Steven Sora UK Amazon US Amazon

The Money Pit Mystery by Eric Walters UK Amazon US Amazon

If you feel benevolent and particularly generous, this writer always appreciates things bought for him from his wishlist

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Giant Crocodiles

This week one of the largest crocodiles ever discovered alive was captured in the Philippines. At 6.4 metres long and over 1000kg's in weight, it puts the most well authenticated previous "largest croc" record of 6.2 m (shot in the Fly River, Papua New Guinea in 1980) in the shade. The Guinness Book Of Records states there is a 7 metre long crocodile in the IndianBhitarkanika national park, so perhaps there are even bigger monster crocodiles out there.

Sadly, as you can see in the picture above, the Filipino crocodile hasn't been treated with the respect it deserves and will now be hauled off to spend the rest of it's life in captivity. I'm hoping for a Rise of the Planet of the Crocodiles type break out in a few months time.

When a picture of Brutus, a mere 5.5m long saltwater crocodile from northern Australian, surfaced earlier this year there was a great deal of controversy over whether it was even real or not.

If you are still a Brutus denier, take a look at this video of him in action And he is a metre shorter than the crocodile captured in the Philippines! The other controversy was of course over the ethical and safety issues around humans interacting with salties... but when you get a picture like that I think there are more important things to consider such as what our future crocodilian overlords might want from us. Then there is the infamous Gustave, a supposed man-eater (with 300 purported victims), this Nile crocodile from Burundi is 6.1m long. He's inspired a movie, and regularly taunts would-be capturers. And there are still more huge crocodiles out there, like this rather large monster whose origins appear to be lost in the mists of an internet email fight...


But could there be even bigger one's out there? Truly gigantic monsters? There are of course reports which have been collected here and here. Given their huge lifespans it's absolutely likely there is a larger crocodile waiting to be found...

If you feel benevolent and particularly generous, this writer always appreciates things bought for him from his wishlist