Writer D'Arcy O'Connor, Digging Deep into 'Money Pit' Lore, Unearths a Trove of Mysteries

updated 03/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/06/1989 AT 01:00 AM EST

As he rowed his boat through the cold gray waves of Mahone Bay, young Daniel McGinnis must have thought about the ominous rumors surrounding Oak Island. At night, according to legend, the island had an eerie incandescence that could be seen from the Nova Scotia mainland a few hundred yards away—the lamp glow of ghostly pirates, locals said, come back to unearth their buried treasure. In daylight, McGinnis saw no apparitions. But he did find a 13-foot saucer-shaped area of soft earth on one side of the island, and he came back the next day with two friends. Dreaming of gold doubloons, the three boys began to dig....

The year was 1795, but it could have been 1850—or 1989. Since McGinnis turned his first shovelful of soil 194 years ago, more than a dozen teams of explorers have come to dig in the mysterious hole on Oak Island, hoping to find a vast fortune. Instead, they've hit a seemingly endless series of barriers and booby traps that suggest someone went to great pains to protect whatever may be buried there. The hole is now called the money pit because of the great sums that have been spent trying to get to the bottom of it. So far, no one has succeeded, though six men have died in the attempt.

This month, a consortium of investors known as Triton Alliance, led by former Miami contractor Dan Blankenship and Montreal businessman David Tobias, will begin to spend a projected $10 million to reach the bottom of the pit. If they succeed, they may be unimaginably wealthy. If they fail, says writer D'Arcy O'Connor, "it is unlikely that anyone in the near future will solve the puzzle."

Though he has no money riding on the project, O'Connor will be watching the excavation with great interest. The Montreal journalist is undoubtedly the leading authority on the money pit, having written scores of articles, several television documentaries and two books on the subject. His latest, The Big Dig: The $10 Million Search for Oak Island's Legendary Treasure, was published this winter.

What has intrigued O'Connor, 47, for 19 years is the "concrete evidence" that something has been painstakingly concealed beneath Oak Island. The diggers that McGinnis lured to the site in 1795 found a carefully laid flagstone barrier two feet down, a layer of oak logs at 10 feet, another at 20, and yet another at 30 before they gave up. Explorers in 1803 hit a wooden chest at 98 feet, but they returned the next morning to find the pit flooded. An 1850 expedition discovered that their predecessors had sprung an ingenious trap: Prying loose some logs at 90 feet had released the seal on a long subterranean tunnel to a water intake at the ocean's edge that was lined with rocks, eel grass and coconut fibers.

Later crews discovered many similar hydraulic traps. Wood extracted from those tunnels has been carbon-dated to the 16th century—the heyday of Atlantic piracy—and the coconut fibers obviously hail from a tropical clime. "This isn't a Bermuda Triangle or a Bigfoot," says O'Connor. "It's for real."

O'Connor's metaphorical dig into the money pit began in 1970 when he was writing for the Wall Street Journal out of his native Montreal. On assignment in a small Nova Scotia town, he met Dan Blankenship, who told O'Connor "the most bizarre story I'd ever heard," about his five-year effort to crack the secret of Oak Island. O'Connor wrote a piece on the money pit for the Journal and then began to dig deeper for his first book on the subject, The Money Pit, which appeared in 1978. He pored over history books and interviewed the treasure hunters' descendants. He sifted through theories about the pit from the crackpot to the plausible. One man maintained that the hole was an inverted replica of the great pyramid of Egypt. Another argued that pirate William Kidd had built the pit to bury loot stolen for the British crown.

But O'Connor believes that the pit must have been dug by the Spanish, whose galleons, loaded with New World plunder, passed within 400 miles of Nova Scotia in the 16th century. He speculates that a disabled ship stashed its loot, planning to return, but sank before it could carry news of the trove back to Spain. "The chances are better than even," he says, "that the treasure is still there."

Triton Alliance has what O'Connor considers the only feasible plan for getting to the bottom of the pit. The company will dam the flood tunnels and block them with cement. High-powered pumps will extract any water that leaks through. It's an obvious solution, but an expensive one, and until Triton came along, no one had enough money to carry it out.

At home in Montreal with Ann Elsdon, an English professor, and their children, Miranda, 8, and Patrick, 5, O'Connor wishes them well. "For their sake, I hope there's gold at the end of the rainbow," he says. "But I'm really more interested in who made the rainbow, who put the gold there. And why."

—Patricia Freeman, and Dirk Mathison in Nova Scotia

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