February 1, 2020

FTV: Oak Island


     The aptly named “Money Pit” on a little two lobed island off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada was purportedly discovered in 1795.  In a mere seventy years after the discovery, numerous groups of treasurer seekers from near and far had landed on Oak Island. Their explorations saw at least ten shafts and an unknown number of tunnels dug in the quest to find the fabulous treasure everyone assumed lay at the bottom of the original Money Pit shaft.  As my old friend often repeats from his days studying to be a lawyer, “Money makes people funny.” I will now include an addendum to this saying: “but treasure makes people crazy.” If insanity is defined as, “Doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result,” then these erstwhile treasure hunters provide a classic case in point.  Repeated digging in the 100 foot circle around the Money Pit destabilized the whole area enough to cause a massive cave in which sent that year’s group of treasurer hunters home. By 1863, this 1861 subsidence proved to be a major hindrance to further exploration. The tangled web of timbers, earth, and discarded equipment made it difficult to even find the original Money Pit shaft, but do not for a minute think that the search was over.  “Money Pit” indeed: it seems that there had already been a king’s ransom dumped into exploring the Money Pit before Upper Michigan brothers Rick and Marty Lagina mounted the latest attempt to uncover the truth about the whole Oak Island mystery.

     Author Randall Sullivan’s 2017 book (The Curse of Oak Island:  The Story of the World’s Longest Treasure Hunt – Atlantic Monthly Press) began with the publication of an article he wrote for Rolling Stone magazine.  The piece was published in January of 2004, but Sullivan was not totally happy with the final product.  Editorial and deadline pressures left his magazine feature with gaps and loose ends he wanted to tie up.  When he visited Oak Island during the filming of season four of The History Channel’s wildly popular series (the long running reality show The Curse of Oak Island is airing year seven episodes as this goes to print), he found the Lagina brothers as anxious to read his book as Sullivan was to get it finished.  The Lagina’s interest in Oak Island had been fueled by a 1965 feature they had seen in Reader’s Digest when they were just kids.  It turns out that there were other modern day treasure hunters inspired by the same article,  but we will have to come back to the Lagina brothers after we dig a little deeper into the history of the Money Pit.

     By December of 1900, the efforts of several more companies had added another ten shafts and even more tunnels to the search.  In each case, the twenty shafts and assorted tunnels discovered evidence of earlier explorations but no treasure. That each of these attempts to find the Money Pit ended when the tunnels and shafts were repeatedly flooded with sea water astounds one’s sensibilities.  The default setting for all of these ‘plans’ seems to have been ‘dig another hole’. When Frederick Blair’s Treasure Company went bust in December of 1900, he wrote a new business perspective to try and scare up more investors for the project: “When we went to work at the Island two years ago, we knew comparatively nothing about the conditions as they existed.  We supposed at the time that the Money Pit was not over 120 feet deep and that the treasure was not over 110 feet down. Our work has since proven that the Pit is not less than 180 feet deep, that there are two tunnels instead of one, and one of them is not less than 160 feet down, and there is treasure at different points in the Pit, from 127 to 170 feet down, without a doubt.  We have also found that work by the Halifax Company is a greater hindrance to the procuring of the treasure than the original work.  We now claim that there is nothing that can prevent us from getting the treasure.”  (the bold print added for emphasis by the author).

     Remember the definition of ‘insanity’?  Just to clarify, the ‘two tunnels’ mentioned are flood tunnels that were apparently built along with the Money Pit to keep treasurer seekers (who did not know how to circumvent the booby traps) at bay.  The flood tunnels seem to have done their job marvelously in the first century of the treasure hunt. Secondly, the ‘Halifax Company’ was one of the previous organizations that contributed to the collapse of the original Money Pit by digging the aforementioned shafts and tunnels.  The bottom line in December of 1900 was pretty simple: The Money Pit had swallowed a lot of investor’s money, produced no treasure, and tweaked that part of the human psyche that can’t let a mystery go unsolved. Another old adage should have come into play to make the Oak Island Mystery fade away:  “Those who ignore history are doomed to relive it.” As you may already have suspected, even those who attacked the problem by doing copious amounts of research about Oak Island over the next century ignored all the lessons and kept digging more holes with the same results. The reasoning here must have been along the lines of, “Yeah, but we have bigger machines and better technology so we are going to just dig deeper and crack this nut wide open.”  Insane? Possibly. Crazy? Without a doubt!  

     Sullivan devotes a good deal of his research and book trying to uncover exactly who might be responsible for planting a treasure on Oak Island in the first place.  Let me encourage you to find the book if you want all the specifics and theories that Sullivan gets into (I borrowed a copy via Inter-library loan from the Engadine Public Library and it arrived in a short period of time at the Ontonagon Township Library). The shortlist of ‘who may have done it’ would include:  Acadians (some of whom would become ‘Cajuns’ when driven from Nova Scotia), pirates or privateers like William Kidd, Henry Morgan, and William Phipps, Huguenots, Incas who fled South America with their treasurers, the Knights Templar, the Freemasons, agents of the French Crown who spirited away the crown jewels, and of course, (wait for it . . .) we would have to give aliens consideration.  Sullivan would like to dismiss most of these, yet in some cases, there isn’t enough evidence for some of these wild theories to be accepted or rejected. For example, one group has speculated that the whole Money Pit was a hoax perpetrated as a kind of ‘in joke’ among the Freemasons. Sullivan does point out that some of the searchers who happened to be Freemasons spent small fortunes hunting the treasure.  Perhaps they missed the ‘wink-wink’ clues that were left to warn the brotherhood’s members that it was just a joke?

     For the sake of brevity, let us skip to 2019 and check in on the progress the Lagina brothers have made up to the current season of The Curse of Oak Island.  I got interested early on but the ‘needle in a haystack’ nature of the search made me skeptical that they would be any more successful than their predecessors.  Who knew that the ongoing quest would become one of the History Channel’s most popular reality shows! The Lagina’s team has grown each season and every time they try a new investigative technique, they uncover more mysteries than they solve.  

     Older brother Rick is a retired postal worker from Kingsford, Michigan.  His brother Marty runs an engineering firm in Traverse City, Michigan and was involved in a proposed wind farm project in Baraga County that was ultimately discontinued.  When they learned that a good chunk of Oak Island was up for sale in 2007, they jumped on the chance to live their treasure hunting dream. They hooked up with the History Channel who obviously fund some of their exploration costs.  Marty Lagina made his fortune in oil and gas exploration before he got into the wind farm business. When he sold his original exploration business for $58 million, the brothers had the capital needed to get into the Oak Island game.  As of 2020, they have extended the series documenting their search much longer than most figured it would last. The one theme that keeps popping up has become the brother’s eternal mantra: “Oak Island does not give up her answers easily and the more clues we dig up, the more questions we end up trying to answer.”  I give them credit for setting up both an on-site museum and an on-site research center to better help them explain and display their finds. They are not afraid to use some very high tech science and machinery to try and get to the bottom of the mystery. Twice they have had to put major money into repairing the causeway to and roads on the island that were damaged by violent north Atlantic storms.

     Their explorations revolves around three main objectives.  The first is to locate the original Money Pit. To this end they have done numerous drilling projects and explosive seismic soundings to get a better picture of what hides beneath the surface.  They spend a great amount of time looking for a five fingered ‘box drain’ system in an area known as Smith’s Cove. The idea is to find the confluence of this five part water collecting system. This single conduit delivering water to flood tunnels has befuddled searchers repeatedly in the past.  The Laginas began the Smith Cove investigation reasoning that, “If we find the main box drain, it will lead us to the Money Pit.” Evidence now leads them to believe there may be a second flood tunnel system in place from the south, opposite the Smith’s Cove area.

     The search for the box drains in Smith’s Cove uncovered a host of structures that only deepened the mystery.  They did eventually find at least one of the drains (and in season seven are trying to follow it to the Money Pit), but they also found a slipway, a concrete wall that would have had to have been constructed under water, and several wooden structures of unknown origin and function.  When they built a ‘bump out’ in their extensive cofferdam they found, to no one’s surprise, even more structures that appear to have been built below the low tide line.   

     A third area of interest is a triangular shaped swamp that occupies the area between the two main ‘drumlins’ (or hills) that make up Oak Island.  Some have speculated that the swamp is man made and may hide an entire ship scuttled there for some reason, a treasure vault separate from the Money Pit, or perhaps the entrance to a secret tunnel that leads either to the Money Pit or the real treasure vault (assuming that the original Money Pit is just a red herring to throw treasure seekers off track). 

     As the seven seasons of Oak Island have unfolded, the team has found themselves exploring more and more of the island for clues.  They have uncovered many interesting artifacts including a small lead cross, uniform buttons, iron spikes, jewelry, coins, and fragments of human bones and china.  These artifacts point to something having taken place on the island and they are hoping that the search will prove that it was something big. The more they find, the longer the window of historical activity on the island gets and the more historical groups become part of the island’s story.  About the time I think they will throw their hands in the air and depart for good, they find another compelling piece of evidence. Each discovery forces them to sit down in their War Room, consider the implications of what they have learned, and then modify their search plan accordingly. At the end of each season, they agree that the exploration must continue.

     The scale of the equipment they have brought to the island is mind boggling.  A massive crane was brought in to build a steel panel coffer dam so Smith’s Cove could be drained and excavated.  Once the slipway was discovered, they had to come back to pull part of the coffer dam and build a ‘bump out’ in this barrier to follow up on this discovery.  Massive drilling rigs have been on site to bore six inch and sixty inch steel lined holes. Debris from previous explorations and possibly an original treasure vault are brought to the surface and then painstakingly sorted for even the smallest clues.  How thoroughly are these spoils examined? In this current season, they were able to identify the paper wrapping from dynamite that had been detonated in an attempt to seal off the drain boxes. Having made multiple explorations of the strange triangle shaped swamp between the two lobes of the island.  Late in season seven, they had drained and begun to excavate the swamp where their underground soundings have shown anomalies (which was promptly set back by Hurricane Dorian). They do not dwell on the paperwork involved in continuing their exploration of the island, but they do make it known that they must have the proper governmental approval for all of their activities.

     I would truly like to end this FTV by telling you that they have found the treasure, revealed who put it there, and finally put an exclamation point on this whole mystery.  Sorry, the best I can do is add more dots to the ongoing story . . . and encourage you do tune into The Curse of Oak Island and come to your own conclusions.  If you suddenly pack up and head there yourself, don’t blame me.  Blame the Island that has lured so many there before the Lagina brothers.  What about the ‘curse’? Their opening teaser to the program always reminds viewers that, “Six men have died seeking this treasure and the legend say a seventh will have to die before the treasure is revealed.”  If you want a quick way to catch up on the whole story, I highly recommend Sullivan’s book. Binge watching also works, but the book will bring one up to speed faster than endless hours in front of the TV.

Top Piece Video – Finding a related music video for the Oak Island Mystery came down to a choice between Heart of Gold or Rock You Like a Hurricane.  The Scorpions won as Hurricane Dorian played a big part in last summer’s dig!