Ainslee's Magazine, Volume 3(6): 747-750 (July 1899)
A Search for Pirate Gold
James Clarence Hyde

ON a raw and gusty winter's night, at the close of the last century, an old sailor lay dying in a New England fishing village. Having missed his natural exit in the arms of the sea, he profited of the privilege of moribund landsmen to indulge in some deathbed utterances. Three young men, named respectively Maginnis, Smith and Vaughn, were there to hearken his words. It is not known, neither does the event explain, whether the dying tar bore them gratitude or a grudge. But he unfolded to them a secret, whose magic has charmed a quarter of a million of dollars out of the banks of shrewd, if adventurous, men of business.

In the first place he acknowledged that his father had been a better, if not a more honest, son of the sea. His father had pursued the difficult career of pirate, and had succeeded in dying peacefully at home in the sunset of life. Fifty years before this gloomy night, his father had crossed the bar. Yet while the timbre of his voice was still sound, he had held a chart before the eyes of his son and, pointing out to him a certain island in Mahone Bay, Nova Scotia, the dying father informed him that on this island lay buried gold, jewels and silver in enormous quantity. Here had been the treasure-house of the pirates. Now the son, dying in turn, was bequeathing the selfsame chart and revelation to the death-watchers, Maginnis, Smith and Vaughn.

Oak Island, where the search for pirate gold is in progress

"Why did you never search for the treasure yourself?" they asked, in ill-veiled skepticism.

The grimed and wrinkled chart fell from the nerveless hold of the old sailor. He mumbled that he had lost all trace of the chart for many years. He had recovered it only when age precluded any attempt at search for the treasure. His mouth and eyes gaped wide as he pronounced the final word of his explanation, and he lay dead.

The old sailor had chosen the proper psychological moment to divulge his rare secret. Spring had hardly thawed the frost-bound earth before Smith, Maginnis and Vaughn were on their way toward Nova Scotia, prepared to disinter the pirates' hoard. They soon located Oak Island, in Mahone Bay, as marked in the chart. They took possession of this bit of earth under the Settlers' Act and began surveys. They found a certain hollow spot, where the soil was unusually soft. Nearby stood a veteran oak, whose bark was knifed with strange symbols. These were hopelessly unintelligible, and therefore the more significant. At the stern of the oak lay a time-worn ship's block. Instinct bade them begin to dig here.

The Treasure Pit, Oak Island

As their excavation progressed the soil was found to be softer, though the walls were firm. They judged themselves to be in a filled pit. Ten feet below the earth's surface they discovered some oak timber. They descended thirty feet further, and at each interval of ten feet they came upon the oak timber, which they concluded had been laid as side-supports. Here their adventure was suddenly interrupted. The inhabitants roundabout, a simple and superstitious folk, had always regarded the treasure-seekers with suspicion. This inhospitable sentiment the adventurers had fostered by their secretive habits. The sense of the community at length became imperative, and Maginnis, Smith and Vaughn sought a more tranquil resting-place for the time.

A luck-interval of seven years was allowed to pass before the treasure-seekers reappeared on Oak Island. They had succeeded in interesting Dr. Lynds, of Truro, Nova Scotia, and at the suggestion of the new associate a company was organized. This time a hole ninety feet deep was dug in the same spot. At this level a flat stone three feet long and sixteen inches wide was unearthed. On the stone, in almost undecipherable hand-print, was inscribed:


Under the stone a wooden platform had been built. The diggers cried, ''Eureka." At last the labor of the diligent was to bear fruit. The veracity of the sailor, who had bequeathed the chart, was to be established. The hope of years was to be fulfilled. The dream of opulence was to be realized. The sun had long set, and they waited only for the dawn of the next day to possess their treasure. In the imaginings of that night's sleep they built marble palaces with other men's hands and foreswore toil forever. In the morning they hurried to the pit. It was filled to the brim with water. Thus ended their second quest. Perhaps the outcome taught them something.

Half a century sped by and a new generation was in the island before a third attempt was made to secure the treasure. In 1849 a new company was formed in Truro, and excavation was begun on the old shaft. Mining augers were used, and at the depth of ninety-eight feet an auger pierced a six-inch log, then sank a few inches and remained imbedded in oak timber. The workmen withdrew the auger, and discovered, clinging to it, some wisps of grass peculiar to the southern seas. Then were unearthed the fragments of a hardwood cask, bearing the marks of a cooper's knife, and three silver links.

It was observed that the water in the pit rose and fell with the tide. Thence the treasure-seekers inferred that there must be a subterranean channel to the sea. A search along the shore revealed five well-defined drains a few hundred feet away on Smith's Cove. The stones of which the drains were built had been carefully laid and trimmed with a hammer. A layer of blue sand and one of tropical grass were also discovered. The main drain ran straight toward the pit. During many months the men endeavored to dam the inflow of the tide with the machinery at their disposal. Their efforts were so utterly unavailing that the work was ultimately abandoned.

Another company took up the quest after twelve years. Five hundred pounds were raised, in shares of five pounds. The money might as well have been dropped in the sea for aught of dividends that it returned. Various attempts of like failure were made during the ensuing thirty-five years; but it was not until 1896 that an elaborate and systematic attack on the mystery of the treasure pit was engineered. In this year of enterprise, the Oak Island Treasure Company was established, with a capital of $60,000. Since that time the company, employing modern machinery and skilled workmen, has been prosecuting the search for pirate gold unremittingly.

The Mysterious Piece of Parchment, fount at a depth of 156 feet

To-day the Oak Island Treasure Company has a plant of two boilers, seven steam pumps, one hoisting engine, one steam drill and a force of fourteen men. The latter work in two shifts, known as the day gang and the night gang. Several new shafts had been sunk, and a cofferdam has been built at Smith's Cove to shut off the tide. It is this element which has constantly broken the progress of the work. The superintendent believes that this obstacle will soon be quite surmounted and then the way to wealth will be clear. The last find of importance was unearthed in November, 1897. From a depth of 156 feet the augers brought up a wet scrap of parchment. The scrap measured three-eighths of an inch in length, and one-half an inch in width; and bore the inscription, "V R."

Drilling for the Treasure, Oak Island

You may go and see the treasure-seekers for yourself on the green little island, with a few ragged oaks at the west point, and a farm-house and outbuildings at the other extremity. There are about two hundred acres in all, owned by three men, Maginnis, Sellers and Butler. At the highest point on the island, probably a hundred yards above tide water, are the works of the Treasure Company. The superintendent is an affable man, willing to show the visitor around, and to tell him about the search, generally hopeful about the outcome, but never much concerned if the visitor does not share his sanguine views. He will show you the shaft, the "money pit," the abandoned pits, the boiler-house and everything else of interest. You will hear the rumble of the heavy machinery, you will see the workmen hauling away loads of earth and rock, and it will probably impress you as an every-day, busy scene such as you would expect to encounter at a coal or iron mine. There is nothing particularly mysterious or romantic about it from the outside. But when you realize that deep down in that pit, probably two hundred feet below where you stand, they are delving night and day, rain or shine, for a vast amount of gold and precious stones secreted there at least two centuries ago by black-bearded, fierce-visaged pirates, then you rub your eyes and wonder if you have been dreaming. Is it possible that the humble sailor, who, on his deathbed divulged the Oak Island chart and the story of the buried treasure, was a moralist, and did he have a precept to inculcate on man's hunger for the impossible?

The Employees at Oak Island
The Run-way, Oak Island