X Marks the Spot

Two hundred years later, the treasure hunters of Oak Island are still looking

A drawing of a woman with floral patterns around her
The Walrus July/August 2014 (Volume 11, Number 6)

The tail end of a late-summer tropical storm swings up over Nova Scotia, walloping the small coastal town of Western Shore with wind and rain, and shrouding the 360 islands of Mahone Bay with thick cloud and fog. When the fog recedes, I can just see Oak Island and the 200-metre causeway that connects it to the mainland. It creeps back a few minutes later and blankets the island like a game of Memory. Your task is to remember where everything was when you last saw it.

Dan Blankenship moved here almost fifty years ago, after reading an article in Reader’s Digest that described Oak Island as “the scene of a baffling whodunit that has defied solution for almost two centuries.” He left his contracting business in Miami and moved north, hell-bent on being the man who would solve it all. His wife, now deceased, and their son, David, joined him a few years later. Today, at ninety-one, he lives in a modest three-bedroom house on the island, alone now, with little to show for his half-century effort.

The legends go back to 1795, when three teenage boys dug into a depression in the ground, next to an oak tree with a suspicious piece of fishing tackle dangling from a branch. They hit what they thought was a man-made log platform, removed it, and kept digging. They hit another platform. At about thirty metres, the pit filled with water—booby trapped, they surmised. There must be something down there, something big. Word spread; theories flew. Captain Kidd’s treasure, surely. The Holy Grail, perhaps. Marie Antoinette’s jewels, Shakespeare’s manuscripts, the Knights Templar’s treasures, you name it: someone, at some point, has believed it was buried on Oak Island.

Since then, the hunt has persisted with few interruptions, carried out by a long succession of self-assured risk takers with shared delusions of grandeur, each convinced that he holds the key to the mystery. Just as one treasure hunter loses his money, his wits, or, in the worst of cases, his life, another has already jockeyed his way in to take the reins, confident that, no, really, I will solve this.

When Blankenship arrived in 1965, he started digging with Robert Dunfield, a geologist from California who had taken over from Robert Restall, a former motorcycle daredevil who made his tragic exit when he, his son Robert Jr., and two other diggers fell into a shaft, got knocked unconscious by carbon monoxide fumes from a nearby generator, and drowned.

For forty years, Blankenship hunted with another partner, David Tobias, until Tobias backed out a decade ago. Then two brothers from Michigan pounced. Rick Lagina, a retired US Postal Service worker, and Marty, an engineer in the oil and gas industry, had read the same Reader’s Digest article in 1965 when they were kids. In 2006, they heard that a 50 percent stake in the hunt was up for sale. The brothers decided that this was their chance. Up they went to Oak Island.

“Dan to me, at that point, was somewhat of a mythic figure, a man who had devoted literally a lifetime’s worth of effort to the search,” Rick tells me about their first foray onto the island, uninvited. “So we get to the causeway, and I nudge my brother, and he nudges me. ‘You drive,’ I say. ‘No, you drive,’ he says. Dan was here [clearing trees] for David’s house, and he didn’t give us any acknowledgement whatsoever.

“We just sat there like two scared little boys, and I went over there and started helping him push down trees. He didn’t even acknowledge me. Now, Dan’s got the most piercing blue eyes. They just look right through you, and they immediately figure out who you are and what you’re about.” Rick knew they were in when Dan finally invited them into his house: “So he just shuts off the chainsaw and says, ‘We’ll go get the key.’ ”

Together with Blankenship, the brothers own roughly 80 percent of the fifty-three-hectare island. The Laginas figured they could bring in oil and gas drilling methods. (They also brought a film crew from the History Channel, which aired a five-part series earlier this year.)

“For almost twenty years, no technology was applied,” Rick says, “so we thought to ourselves, Well, we got twenty years of literally unused technology. We’ve tried penetrating radar, side-scan sonar out in the ocean. We tried electrical resistivity [tomography].…This island protects its secrets really, really well.”

As does Dan. He does not deign to speak to me while I’m here, and when I reach him by phone in the middle of winter he is abrupt. He’ll answer my questions if he feels like it. I ask him what got him hooked on the island in the first place.

Inquisitiveness. What keeps him going? Inquisitiveness. What did he hope to find? He won’t say, but in 2010 he told the National Post he believed it might be loot buried by Spanish conquistadores.

I ask if he hopes his son will carry on the family legacy. “No,” he says, after a pause, and even the word sounds as if it’s staring off into the distance. “I’ve been at it long enough for both of us, and he has, too. Why would you wish somebody to carry on something you’ve spent forty-eight years at and haven’t been successful? Is that something you’d wish on a loved one? I don’t think so.”

Like his father, David is a man of few words. He expects that he’ll probably continue working with the Lagina brothers, as heir to a 50 percent share of the operation, but if he has given it serious thought he doesn’t let on. “Probably” is not a concept that fares well here. This is an island for the cocky and confident. “The bug never bit me like it bit Dad,” he says.

Rick, on the other hand, talks the talk of a realist, but (even while acknowledging the total lack of success thus far) he walks the walk of a dreamer. “From a statistical standpoint, in the face of 200 years of failure, we’re probably going to fail,” he says. “I have nothing but the utmost respect for Dan. Has he been successful? He’ll be the first to tell you, he hasn’t. That’s one of the things that drives me, to a certain degree. I want to be able to knock on Dan’s door and say, ‘You know what, Danny? You were right.’ ”

This appeared in the July/August 2014 issue.

Heather Cleland
Heather Cleland has published with the Globe and Mail, the Georgia Straight, and The Walrus.