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SUMMERSIDE – In 2018, Scott Barlow received a phone call he had been waiting for since he was a child.
"How often does somebody call you up and say: 'Hey, you want to be part of a treasure hunt?'"
Barlow, of Freetown, P.E.I., spent most of 2019 as project manager for Oak Island Tours, the company digging for the fabled lost treasure of Oak Island, N.S., and the subject of the hit TV show, The Curse of Oak Island.
The program is currently airing its seventh season on The History Channel, and Barlow can regularly be seen in the thick of things, often digging through the muck looking for artifacts or poring over survey data and historical records.
Trying to solve the Oak Island mystery is Barlow's dream job.
When he was 12 years old he read an adventure novel called The Hand of Robyn Squires, by author Joan Clark. The plot revolved around the island's fabled treasure.
"Since then, I was hooked," said Barlow.
The mystery of Oak Island has stumped people around the world for two centuries, while at the same time inspiring generations of treasure hunters.
According to the Canadian Encyclopedia, interest in the island, a 144-acre spit of land just off the coast in Mahone Bay, N.S., was first piqued in 1795, when a young man found evidence of an unusual pulley system over a filled-in shaft into the earth. Curious, he and some friends dug down the shaft and found decayed oak-log platforms at three-metre intervals.
Years later, they returned to investigate in earnest, but when they reached 30 metres the hole filled with seawater. Subsequent digs uncovered more tunnels around the island. They are believed to be part of a sophisticated system of traps designed to flood the main shaft with water, preventing anyone from getting to whatever lies at the bottom.
Unusual artifacts found there have included ancient coins, a lead cross, coconut fibre and stone carvings. Man-made landmarks are also speculated to exist, including a large multi-stone cross, but its validity is debated.
No one has ever confirmed what happened on the island, but writers, scientists and historians have been theorizing since the initial discovery was made.
Some have suggested that whatever is at the bottom of the Oak Island "Money Pit" (the original dig shaft) is the Holy Grail, Ark of the Covenant, the relics of the Knights Templar, Captain Kidd's pirate treasure or Shakespeare's lost manuscripts.
There is no shortage of theories.
Those stories, rumours and legends have inspired dozens of attempts by treasure hunters over the years. Such efforts have cost millions of dollars and the lives of five men. Folklore says six people will die on the island before the treasure is found.
In the days before the internet, Barlow eagerly sought out any books and articles about the Oak Island mystery. When the internet finally arrived in the 1990s, he found a new wealth of information and a community of people from around the world who are equally as interested in the mystery as he.
Around 2013, when HISTORY channel announced plans to air a new show based entirely around a renewed search for the treasure, Barlow was ecstatic.
"Information was hard to come by, and a lot of people who do that kind of work, they don't really make a public report every day of what they find. You were always going on bits and pieces and scraps and hearsay, and all that stuff. At least the show gives you a little insight."
Barlow's transition from fan to treasure hunter came in 2018, when Doug Crowell, a historian and Oak Island researcher, called him with an offer to come help at the site. The men knew each other through their mutual interest in the mystery.
Then in 2019, Rick Lagina, who along with his brother, Marty, owns a controlling interest in Oak Island Tours, which owns most of the island, called Barlow and offered him the project manager's job. The brothers had, to that point, co-ordinated most of the work themselves. They were looking to delegate some of those efforts.
Barlow described his responsibilities as being a combination of jack-of-all-trades and co-ordinator between the work crews, the Lagina brothers and their partners.
"(I was) kind of the go-between guy between the contractors and the owners. It was my job to make sure everything was moving forward."
Barlow has a unique skill set that made his addition to the team a good fit. When not working on Oak Island, he offers his combination of plumbing, mechanical and electrical skills through his company, Mechanical Solutions.
Rick Lagina told the Journal Pioneer that Barlow is a great addition to the Oak Island team.
"Scott brought a valuable set of skills to Oak Island. His calm demeanour, critical analysis and mechanical expertise are invaluable. Scott proved daily he was invested, sincere and committed and we are all extremely appreciative of his participation and friendship."
The work has been a challenging and rewarding experience, said Barlow.
There were hectic days of scurrying around from one job to another, then long nights sitting around the "War Room" office theorizing about the mystery of where they should focus their digging efforts next.
"There are lots of days there where you leave and you're right at the top of the world. You had a great day. Then there are other days where things didn't turn out the way you hoped. It's an emotional rollercoaster."
One of the toughest parts of the job was getting used to all the TV cameras and crews trailing along behind as you worked, said Barlow.
What people see on TV is an accurate representation of the work – though more condensed. The viewer sees the discovery, not the eight days of fruitless searching that happened before the discovery.
He's happy to be a part of it, he said.
As for whether the treasure was found last year – Barlow won't spill the proverbial beans. Fans will have to watch the show to find out.
"Last year was our biggest effort yet in terms of the work done. We had some major strides forward in terms of learning things," he said.
"We have (gained) a better understanding, in the last year, of some of the island than people have had ever ... and of course, in typically Oak Island fashion, you find one thing and it leads to more questions."
Oak Island Timeline
Famed pirate Captain William Kidd is executed and rumours of his treasure, or part of it, being buried somewhere in Nova Scotia, spread.
Folklore tells that three men went to explore Oak Island and found an old pulley system suspended over a depression in the ground. They dug into the depression and found a layer of stone, followed by wood platforms every ten feet, but had to abandon their efforts.
Group called the Onslow Company continue digging for the treasure but are forced to give up in 1805 when their shafts filled with water, which couldn't be pumped out fast enough.
The Truro Company started digging but also could not overcome the water problem and eventually run out of money.
The Oak Island Association takes over the dig. A boiler exploded that year, causing the first Oak Island death. Work continues intermittently to 1864.
Oak Island Contract Company makes an attempt at a dig but never fully gets off the ground.
Oak Island Eldorado Company does more digging/construction on the Island but it too eventually peters out.
Oak Island Treasure Company takes over the hunt.
A man involved in the search slips from a hoist and falls to his death.
Oak Island Treasure Company runs out of money and abandons the search.
The Old Gold Salvage and Wrecking Company makes its attempt at the treasure. Future U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt is one of the investors.
The Oka Island Salvage Company forms and proposes artificially freezing as a way around the flooding problem. It doesn't get off the ground.
U.S. engineer William S. Lozier does some limited drilling on the Island but finds nothing.
New Yorker Edward W. Browne makes plans to excavate the island but never gets a shovel in the ground.
William Chappell makes his attempt.
Canadian Oak Island Treasure company drills more holes on the Island but finds nothing.
Gilbert Hedden makes an attempt.
Prof. Edwin H. Hamilton makes an attempt.
Nathan Lindenbaum makes his attempt.
John Whitney Lewis buys most of Oak Island and tries to get a treasure hunting license, but is unsucessfull. Frederick Blair retains the license and the impasse between the two men brings digging to a halt.
M.R. Chappell and Frederick Blair are active on the Island.
Texas oil baron George J. Greene leads a consortium of oil companies in their attempt at finding the treasure. They gave up after a year.
Harmon Brothers are briefly active on the Island.
Restall Family takes over the search. Robert Restall, his 18-year-old son and two others, Karle Greaser and Cyril Hiltz were all overcome with hydrogen sulphide fumes in a dig shaft and died, bringing the Oak Island death toll to five.
Robert Dunfield leases a portion of the island and builds the causeway to accommodate a large bucket crane.
Triton Alliance is formed to search for the treasure. They do more digging, send divers into sunken shafts and use cameras underground to collect images. The partnership collapsed due to lack of funds and devolved into a legal battle.
American brothers Rick and Marty Lagina buy a 50 per cent stake in the island with their Michigan Group company. The other 50 per cent is owned by former Triton Alliance members the Blankenship family. The partnership between the two groups is Oak Island Tours Inc.
Prometheus Entertainment and The History Channel start production of The Curse of Oak Island, which documents the search for the famed treasure.