There are numerous little islands within Mahone Bay – the bay that is, not the town named after it. The most famous is Oak Island, a site of genuine mystery that was, irrefutably, used centuries ago by somebody of European origin who was manifestly willing to expend significant resources for some purpose involving, among other things, surveying, tunnelling, the construction of coffer dams, and underlaying a beach with cocoanut fibre, all long before the Nova Scotia South Shore is known to have been settled. There was even a coded message left behind on a stone slab buried dozens of feet down a purported shaft, and somebody arranged boulders across the island to form an enormous crucifix. Geodetic markers and old surveyor’s bench marks are scattered about. Whoever was there wasn’t just visiting. They set up shop, surveyed the place, and got down to business, whatever business was.
Rumour has it that some vast treasure is hidden there, left by Captain Kidd, or the Spanish, or even the Knights Templar, whose proto-Masonic symbolism does indeed show up on rocks and artifacts scattered over the landscape. For the past century or so, many have tried to find it, and fortunes have been squandered digging in and around what’s supposed to be the “money pit”, generally to find nothing beyond tantalizing artifacts – a few coins, musket balls, the odd buckle, spikes and planks from an old wooden ship, bits of parchment with fragments of writing – that prove that someone was there with a large outfit doing what must have been something important, some time in the early 18th century, or even earlier.
The latest effort to solve the mystery has been mounted by a thoroughly likeable pair of Americans, brothers Rick and Marty Lagina, who grew fascinated with the island’s story back when they were kids, having read a brief article about it in Readers’ Digest. They have a popular show on the History Channel that chronicles their multi-kabillion dollar exploration of the island, which at times has involved massive amounts of digging and the expensive deployment of exotic heavy machinery, tons of research, comprehensive surveys by metal detector, scientific analysis of artifacts, and even scuba diving down large flooded exploratory drill holes. The Laginas have a background in oil and gas exploration, and they know what they’re doing. They also know when they need expert assistance, and they’re pursuing their dig scientifically, in accordance with archaeological protocols, unlike the many who carried out some unfortunately ham-fisted excavations in years past.
Like those that have gone before, they’ve found lots of clues and artifacts – including deeply buried fragments of human bone genetically traced to the Middle East – and lots of evidence of underground structures, drainage systems, and so on. So far, all they’ve been able to confirm beyond question is what we already knew, that somebody was there centuries ago, expending plenty of time and energy, and more than a little engineering prowess, on something.
A book by local historian Joy Steele makes a convincing case, supported by original documents, that back before the South Shore of Nova Scotia was settled, Oak Island was a locale picked by the famous South Sea Company for a naval stores manufacturing facility, rendering pine tar for pitch and such. It’s a plausible if disappointingly prosaic answer, and I’d be ready to fold my tent and trudge away in despair, except the Laginas keep finding things that are too old to have originated with that enterprise, including a French map dated to the 14th Century, and an old lead cross that definitely looks like the sort that Templars used to wear. It may be that the South Sea Company did establish an outpost on the island, before its famous bubble burst and everybody was told to drop their shovels and go home, but somebody else may still have been there even earlier. If so then when, and to what end, remains an enduring mystery.
You could go crazy trying to crack that nut. Some have. Some, six so far, have taken risks that got them killed.
If you’re interested, there’s a metric buttload of material available on-line, for example:
Kids growing up in my neck of the woods learned all about the Oak Island mystery, and it’s hard to be anything but fascinated with the possibilities, and the romance of the ongoing treasure hunt. Lately, though, it’s a different island that’s captured my imagination, just a few hundred yards from shore, maybe half a mile down the road from where we have our condo. I first noticed it when we were driving back from nearby Lunenburg.
As an aside, if you ever want to drive yourself into bankruptcy buying art and arty objets, give Lunenburg a go. It’s also the ideal stop if your goal is to put on 30 pounds over the run of a summer by shovelling fish and chips into your gaping pie hole. The hard part is getting back to your car after gobbling down six and a half pounds of deep-fried food – geez, that town is hilly. Right some friggin’ hilly, and no two ways about it, you can trust me to know what I’m on about, I grew up in the hilly old town of Halifax, and it’s damned near flat next to Lunenburg. One of the best eateries is down by the pier, and it’s something close to a 45 degree slope back up the hill, and feels steeper. With your innards loaded down with buckets of fat, it just kills you.
Don’t be driving around town with faulty brakes, right?
Anyhoo, last visit I did successfully crawl on all fours back to the car, and was thus in the passenger seat looking idly out to sea on the return trip when I spotted this enormous house on an island. A real monster home. Huge. “House” doesn’t even begin to do it justice, it’s more like a castle built within a compound that includes a great big wharf, a boat house as big as the standard McMansion with a guest residence on the top floor, and various outlying structures to better facilitate outdoor dining by the fire pit, or sunning near the shoreline. It’s on a little patch in the bay called Strum Island. This overhead shot is from Google Maps:
…and here’s what you’d see through binoculars:
It turns out you can rent the place, for God only knows how much:
You’ll note they aren’t so crass as to quote vulgar pricing details on the web page. Presumably, only those monied to the level of Persian Gulf potentates or Russian oligarchs need apply. To whet your appetite, there’s a nice video they put together:
I’m not sure why they ended up renting it out, maybe the intended owner just got bored with the idea and decided to buy something in the Hamptons instead, but occupied or not, there it sits, all 10,000 square feet of it – not counting the guest house, and facilities like the roofed “Lobster Palace”, where fine dining on a large granite table next to a towering stone fireplace may be enjoyed in a spectacular setting that combines the best of outdoor recreation and indoor comfort. It says here.
Can you even imagine the expense of building this pleasure dome out there? Just getting the building materials where they needed to go would have cost a fortune; once you have to cross a quarter mile of water, you’re into barges and tugs, as sure as if it was out over the horizon. The obvious solution would have been to build a causeway, but then, I suppose, they’d have had to put a machine gun nest at one end to keep the dirty locals from paying random visits. Obviously, the place enjoys ample electrical service – I don’t see any wind turbines, so there must be a cable laid on the sea floor. There’s probably another underwater line for fibre optics to feed the broadband to all the screens and entertainment devices. And where do the copious quantities of fresh water required for all those hot tubs and manatee-sized baths come from? Most of these islands are made of a porous rock saturated by sea water that fills any hole you dig (just ask the guys on Oak Island), so you can’t drill a well, unless you want to drink good, salty Atlantic brine – is there a water pipe that goes to the mainland? The gourmet kitchen features two grand propane stoves, so somebody must be bringing sizable tanks across, and then of course there’s the groceries and other sundries that have to be boated over, and all the grounds keeping, boat maintenance and such. Fighting the elements has its own costs. For example, to stop the mansion from toppling into the sea, they built a new stone sea wall around the whole perimeter of the island, the better to fight erosion.
It starts to add up.
Strum Island’s conversion into a luxury playpen was accomplished with all the proper permits, but it wasn’t without controversy:
…and afterward, conservation groups were organized to try to stop such island debauchery from becoming the norm:
The mansion is, one has to admit, a little bit obscene, I mean, it’s certainly no exercise in understated good taste, nor was anyone concerned, apparently, with blending in a bit. Nope, they stripped off the trees and plonked it down right where you could get a good, envious look at it. You can’t miss it, really. It’s practically squatting there grinning at you, almost mocking the peasants who drive by on the other side of what may as well be a moat between Festung Lucre and the dreary terrain where the simple folk scratch out their dismal livings. Don’t get me wrong, if I had the ill-gotten booty I’d buy it in a heartbeat and live happily and conspicuously like a feudal lord, levying scutage and tithe on the local serfs and vassals, but I take the protesters’ point. It would certainly be an unseemly, verging on immoral, flaunting of unjust wealth distribution to lay out on the deck over there, sunning and sipping some bubbly.
I just wouldn’t care.
If you’re of the same inclination, it’s still available for purchase. The latest information I could find had it going for 14 million, and it was also being offered as a time share, split seven ways at two million apiece. It appears that people aren’t jumping at the chance, here, or at another locale called Kaulbach Island where an even more magnificent pile of bricks has been on the market for years:
Oh, fickle market! Maybe what will prevent Mahone Bay from turning into a mansion-studded water park for the insanely wealthy is simple lack of demand. I don’t know how the rentals are going, but I bet the developer is taking a bath on Strum Island, just one more sad entrepreneur bitch-slapped by the Invisible Hand.
It would seem there’s more than one way to sink millions into an offshore money pit around here.