SPECIAL REPORT

The Mystery Of Oak Island

RALPH SURETTE August 10 1987
SPECIAL REPORT

The Mystery Of Oak Island

RALPH SURETTE August 10 1987

The Mystery Of Oak Island

Over the past 192 years the riddle of Nova Scotia’s Oak Island—and the legends of pirates’ gold that cling to it—have lured at least six people to their deaths and defeated every effort to penetrate its secret. Now, a Montreal-based consortium of investors called Triton Alliance Ltd. has announced plans to raise $10 million to solve the mystery, perhaps by sinking a steel-and-concrete shaft into the heart of the island. Triton president David Tobias, who says that gold plundered by the 16th-century English sea captain Sir Francis Drake may be buried on Oak Island, predicted that the project to solve the mystery would probably be the “deepest and most expensive archeological dig ever made in North America.” But that brave claim had to be set against the fact that Triton has been trying to uncover Oak Island’s secret since 1969—and has spent much of the past 14 years locked in a feud with a rival treasure hunter.

Battle: Triton’s latest, carefully publicized plan called for fund-raising—perhaps through a public share offering—this winter and a start to the new project in the spring. Meanwhile, work resumed on an eight-footwide hole that Triton field manager Daniel Blankenship has drilled to a depth of more than 130 feet. Triton’s new round of activity on the 132-acre island off Nova Scotia’s South Shore followed settlement in April of a prolonged legal battle that began five years ago when Frederick Nolan, a competing treasure hunter from Bedford, N.S., laid claim to seven of the island’s 32 lots that Tobias held. Nolan, who won his case and is preparing to resume work on his part of the island, expressed skepticism about Triton’s plans. “These people repeat themselves,” he told Maclean's. “In 1971 they said that they had $500,000 and were going to solve the mystery.” In fact, Triton claims to have spent $3 million over the past 18 years in an effort to unravel Oak Island’s mystery. The puzzle has obsessed a succession of

treasure hunters ever since three farm boys rowed to the island in 1795 and discovered an intriguing saucer-like depression near its eastern end. Subsequent exploration revealed a shaft more than 170 feet deep, fitted with an ingenious centuries-old security sys-

tern. As sealed wooden platforms in the shaft are opened, flood tunnels linked to the ocean fill the shaft with seawater, frustrating every attempt to descend into the shaft. Over the decades successive treasure seekers—convinced that the site contained the booty of 16th-century pirates or privateers—have riddled the area with a network of tunnels. But each time, the so-called “Money Pit” has defeated them. In one fatal accident, treasure hunter Robert Restall, his son and two other men drowned in 1965 at the bottom of the shaft they had dug.

Triton’s efforts over the years have

lent some support to the theories of buried treasure. A decade ago professional drillers hired by the consortium sank a shaft 180 feet deep near the Money Pit and brought up samples of iron, brass and other materials that were dated, by Carbon-14 analysis, to the 16th or early 17th centuries. Triton’s likeliest plan is to build offshore dams to keep water out of the flood tunnels, then drive a steel-reinforced concrete shaft straight down into the pit itself.

Decoy: But Nolan says that he is convinced that the Money Pit is actually an elaborate decoy and that the treasure is buried in the swamp that covers part of his section of the island. Before the legal battle with Triton halted his work, Nolan discovered a pattern of old survey lines on his land and, by following them, located the remains of three oak chests. Meanwhile, Nolan complained that Triton had a guard watching him from outside his property—“to unnerve me, I guess,” he said. Another problem loomed. Since 1967 Nolan has operated a small museum to display the ship’s tackle, drills and other antique artifacts found on his land. But the Nova Scotia government has complained that the museum is intruding on provincial land 2 and wants it moved.

^ While the treasure hunt® ers of Oak Island continue to % plan and manoeuvre, other I Nova Scotians say that the island’s richest potential might lie in the development of an Oak Island tourist industry, with guided tours to the Money Pit and outings for amateur treasure hunters. Although no one has announced any definite plan, Nova Scotia Tourism Minister Jack Maclsaac notes ,that, as the strip of hotels along Scotland’s celebrated Loch Ness showed, “it wouldn’t be the first time something was built on a mystique rather than the reality.” And if history is any guide, the hidden treasure of Oak Island may remain as elusive as the mythical Loch Ness monster itself.

RALPH SURETTE