Shad Bay Treasure Hunt

It’s not famous like Oak Island, but Shad Bay also has legends of pirates, treasure and treasure hunters, including two men who gave up on finding buried treasure and switched to prospecting for minerals.

Tradition suggests pirate treasure was buried on Cochran Island (aka Big Island) in Shad Bay, Halifax County, about 10 kilometres northeast of Peggy’s Cove. There is little documentation about the alleged treasure and efforts to find it, but several short references can be found online. For example, a pirate named Captain Howles is said to have buried gold and other valuables on the island.

Another legend says Cochran Island used to be known as Weeping Widows Island because Captain Kidd had 43 men bury treasure there and then killed them to keep the location secret.

A number of people have tried to find the treasure, including American Charles Ganton who came to Nova Scotia in 1892 to look for it. Ganton gave up after digging a shaft 30-feet deep.

No treasure has been discovered but a large, flat rock is rumoured to have been found underground by searchers, and there are suggestions that the treasure’s hiding spot is booby trapped – all very similar to what is said about Oak Island’s Money Pit.

More substantive documentation appears in the 1937 annual report of the Nova Scotia Department of Mines, which reported that James P. Nolan and Rupert Allen were exploring Cochran Island: “Years ago it was supposed that treasure was buried on the island. As far back as any of the residents can recall there was evidence of digging having been carried out. An old map showing an island as the place of burial of considerable treasure is reported to be in existence, and from the description given, Cochran Island was believed to be the one indicated on the map. By the use of mineral rod operated by Mr. Nolan a point of maximum pull was located and a shaft started on the property.”

By “mineral rod,” the report perhaps means a dowsing rod, a forked stick used to locate underground water, minerals, or other hidden or lost substances. Dowsing is best known as a way to locate water sources, in theory at least, but it has also been used for centuries to look for minerals. The “point of maximum pull” would be where the dowsing road pointed toward the ground, theoretically where the treasure was located (

However, Nolan was also pitching some sort of gold-finding machine in that period, and it may be what the annual report referred to. Letters written in 1937 by Gilbert Hedden, who bought the eastern end of Oak Island in 1935 and explored for treasure until 1937, show that Nolan was trying to convince Hedden to use the invention on Oak Island. Hedden was skeptical: “I replied that I would be far more interested if they could produce positive results on the island in Shad Bay where he is working, and I think it will be some time before we hear from him again” (

Hedden’s doubts about Nolan are also apparent in a 1938 letter in which he suggests Nolan may have lied about finding a large stone buried on Cochran Island which sounds similar to Oak Island’s 90-foot stone: “There is a strong possibility that he is trying to raise funds to continue his work at Shad Bay and has concocted this tale and produced a rock to attract interest.”

A 1940 Department of Mines memo refers to Nolan’s gold-finding machine as “a so-called mineral detector,” a phrase that also conveys skepticism. In that case, Nolan used the machine to convince Father John Lanigan of Prospect, Halifax County, to spend church funds exploring for gold in Terence Bay. No gold was found at the site and Department staff believed the site had no potential (

Regardless of which method Nolan used to choose the location, a 33-foot shaft was dug at the northern end of Cochrane Island, eight feet of which were in bedrock. This effectively ruled out finding buried treasure in the shaft since someone hiding treasure would not go to the trouble of digging through bedrock – dirt is sufficient to hide something, and much easier to dig through.

The memo said, “This of course disproved the treasure theory so that they are now looking for a valuable mineral deposit in a cavity which they encountered in the rock. This is apparently the fissure through which salt water is entering the shaft.” The men apparently had enough faith in Nolan’s abilities that they assumed something valuable had to be buried at the site he chose – if not pirate treasure, perhaps gold.

The reference to a fissure – a crack – is another similarity to Oak Island. Seawater entered the Cochrane Island shaft, likely through the natural fissure, but this was taken by some to mean the site was booby trapped as the Money Pit is said to be.

Nolan and Allen went on to dig a second shaft that was deeper than the first (37 feet) and larger (6x12 feet compared to 4x6 feet). They employed six men in 1937.

In 1938, Nolan and Allen returned to Cochran Island. They deepened the shaft and did some diamond exploration drilling from its bottom in search of the gold or other metals they believed had triggered the dowsing rod or mineral detector.

There are no other records of activity at the site, which suggests the drilling did not produce any results worth following up on.

You use gold every day. For example, it is in the device you are reading this on! Electrical signals can be interrupted by corrosion at contact points in circuitry. This can affect the proper functioning of electronics, so gold is used at contact points to ensure the signals flow properly through them. Gold is expensive so we only use it when its unique characteristics make it the best material.

Geology may explain some of Oak Island's mysteries. See the story at

Gilbert Hedden did not just search for treasure on Oak Island – he also took over exploration work at the Jubilee zinc-lead deposit in Victoria County. See the story at