The Characters of Oak Island: Robert Dunfield — Cracking a Walnut With a Sledgehammer
Taking Heavy Machinery to a Site of Possible Archaeological Significance, Dunfield Has Been Seen as a Villain. But Is That Fair?
The annals of Oak Island lore are steeped in human stories of ingenuity, determination, adventure and the desire not only for the enrichment of men’s bank balances but also their knowledge of the unknown. While we may criticise many of these treasures seekers for the foolishness of flights of fancy, it is unusual amongst these stories to find a genuine villain. However, Robert Dunfield may just be the closest the island may ever get. Known for his extensive searches on the island in the 1960s, Dunfield has come in for sizeable criticism in the modern era for the methods undertaken during his excavation efforts. Efforts that are the anthesis to any historian or archaeologist.
It was in July of 1965 that Robert Dunfield’s name first became attached to Oak Island, seeking to lease the island for the following year from then-owner Mel Chappell. When informed that this wasn’t possible through reason of an existing contract, Dunfield sought to join the current efforts on the island under the leadership of Robert Restall. Dunfield sold in impressive plan with no alleged limitation as to finances, proposing extensive surveying of the island, the use of sheet piling to cut off the suspected flood tunnels and the use of an orange peel grab excavator. After a successful negotiation Dunfield invested $5000 ($40,000 in 2019 terms) with an option for a further investment of the same amount. Feeling that he had enough money to complete his work at the Money Pit, Restall would turn away an additional investment from a name who would become synonymous with the legend of Oak Island, one Dan Blankenship, a building contractor out of Miami.
The situation on the island would soon both drastically and tragically change, however.
On August 17, 1965, Robert Restall, his son Robert Jnr, Carl Graeser and Cyril Hiltz were killed after an accident at a shaft at Smith’s Cove on the island. Believed to be a storm drain, the four were overcome by toxic gas leading to their drowning and untimely deaths. There was an outpouring of sympathy and shock throughout the Mahone Bay area, the Restalls having made themselves a popular addition to the local community. Offers of support for Robert Restall’s widow Mildred came from far afield, including from Dan Blankenship, which perhaps speaks volumes of his class following his early disappointment at being unable to invest. Sadly, business rarely allows ample time for mourning and soon the surviving Restalls were flung into debates over how to now proceed on the island, having the lease for work throughout the rest of the year. With the Restall contract nearing its conclusion and a belief that Robert had been in touching distance of success, time was running out for all involved to see a return on the already significant investment in the project.
Robert Dunfield, in particular, was keen to stress that he was the only man for the job, having already been associated with the project. He made promises not only that the recovery project would support Mildred Restall, but equally that he would continue in the same method as the Restalls by applying due care and attention to all work undertaken. He promised he would ensure the preservation of the integrity of the island. Despite his words, the contracts subsequently signed confirmed that he was free to undertake the required work in any manner he desired. Mildred Restall would never forgive Dunfield for what happened next.
California native, petroleum geologist and UCLA graduate Dunfield began work at the Money Pit, not long after the burial of the Restalls, making his intentions clear from the outset by bringing two bulldozers to the island. Popular belief is that Dunfield felt the best way to achieve his desired goals was not surgical precision and careful investigation of the many points of historical interest on the island. Instead, the answer to the problem was a sledgehammer to the Money Pit’s walnut. While this is not wholly the truth, Dunfield making extensive plans and diagrams both through his own investigations and building on the work of previous searchers, he would also describe the task as a “problem in open-pit mining but with the added difficulty of seeping water.”
Starting in earnest, Dunfield took the top twelve feet off the Money Pit area, and despite uncovering what was believed to be the cribbing of the original Money Pit, he was alarmed to realise that he was unable to stop the flow of water into the hole. Dunfield proceeded to dump the spoils from the Money Pit into Smith’s Cove in an attempt to stem the flow, an area known to be manmade and of potential interest. When this still failed to achieve the desired effect, his solution once again was to throw the most massive thing possible at the problem — this time a 70-ton digging crane with a clam bucket. Before Dunfield could bring the heavy machinery over, however, he decided to build the famous Oak Island causeway to ensure the ease of transport. This causeway links the west of the island with to Crandall’s Point on the mainland. Despite objections of locals in Nova Scotia, Dunfield succeeded in building the 650-foot long causeway in an impressive 10 days during October of 1965, immediately bringing across his crane and additional pumping equipment. He headed for the south shore.
It was here that Dunfield attempted to stop the flow of water into the Money Pit works after reenacting William Chappell’s 1898 dye experiment. This experiment involved flushing dye down the Money Pit to investigate the exact entry and exit points for the flood system. Chappell had identified three points on the island where the dye flooded into the surrounding sea and subsequently Dunfield dug a 200-foot long trench to a depth of 22 feet. It was during excavations he proclaimed he had discovered an entirely new shaft which was allowing water to flow into The Money Pit, part of a wholly new system of tunnels that were flooding the area. Discovered after the bucket dropped into soft ground, the team at the south shore discovered a refilled hole some eight-foot square. The shaft was obviously the work of man, being filled with rocks, sand and eelgrass and subsequently excavated in the belief it was the entry point for the water. After a week of digging and exploring the hole, no side tunnels were discovered, and Dunfield abandoned the attempt at the 60 feet mark.
Having failed to achieve his aims on the south shore, Dunfield ordered his men back to the Money Pit. They resumed work at the shaft with the heavy machinery, his 70-foot crane gathering dirt to create a shaft some 50 feet wide to a depth of nearly 150 feet. This undertaking destroyed much of the work done by previous searchers Gilbert Hedden and Walter Chappell and entered a previously discovered thick limestone layer of rock. After being forced to change his crane for contractual reasons, things started to go wrong for the Dunfield operation. They encountered mechanical failures and suspected sabotage by fishermen who were disgruntled at his creation of the Oak Island causeway. Dunfield, however, still believed he was on track to finding the Oak Island treasure after he exposed what he thought was yet more original timbers from the Money Pit, observing clay walls pockmarked by clear evidence of manmade pick work.
While Dunfield had experience in the oil industry and had some modest success in digging wells, with costs escalating he was not yet was not in the financial position to continue the massive operation he envisioned on Oak Island. Seeking investment, he partnered with fellow oil men GR Perle and Jack Nethercutt, also of California like Dunfield, alongside Dan Blankenship who was finally able to invest in the search. To secure this investment Dunfield is said to have made several claims surrounding his wealth and access to resources that were simply not true, including using a false address in Beverly Hills to give a false impression of affluence.
During the Christmas period, with his workforce away on holiday, Dunfield began the arduous task of sifting through the spoils for artefacts. Finding pieces of porcelain and what he presumed were relics from previous searches, Dunfield dismissed the finds as irrelevant. By the time his crew returned to the island, the situation at the dig site had deteriorated. Heavy rainfall over the Christmas period had caused the sides of the gigantic pit to cave in, almost filling the hole to the top with soil. Attempts to re-excavate the site met with the same problem and Dunfield concluded that he would expand the size of the hole to 100 feet in diameter and 184 feet deep with a gentle slope to counteract the continuing slide of material into the pit. It didn’t work.
Faced with continual lousy weather, rising costs and more subsidence into the dig area, Dunfield ordered the massive hole to be refilled with a view to recommencing in the summer of 1966. Before leaving the island, however, Dunfield had one last roll of the dice, bringing a massive drilling rig across the causeway and drilling four six-inch wide holes down 140 feet. At the 139 feet mark, the drill dropped into a cavity said to be 45 feet high including a 2-foot thick roof, hitting bottom at 184 feet. After examination of material from the hole, Dunfield would later claim to have hit an iron floor and reaffirmed his determination to resume his work at the Money Pit in the summer.
However, while the weather might have changed for the better, the atmosphere in the local area had conversely soured. News of Dunfield’s tactics on Oak Island had spread, and when Dunfield publicly aired the idea of outright purchasing the island with interested parties in the oil sector, the reaction was swift. The Council in Chester and other organisations across the county petitioned the government to acquire Oak Island and declare it a national historic park, attempting to put a stop to Dunfield’s activities.
The damage done to the landscape and points of historical interest across the south and east of Oak Island was extensive, Dunfield having destroyed both the original Money Pit workings and subsequent searcher tunnels, leaving mounds of soil and sand. All measurements and plans of the area made before this point were now useless. The south shore trench had swallowed the key “stone triangle,” a possibly important boulder was gone, and the Smith’s Cove box drains had been broken and buried in efforts to stop the flow of water. Oak Island was a crater.
While the Nova Scotian government eventually decided against making a move for Oak Island, faced with mounting criticism and local hostility Robert Dunfield left the Island for good in April of 1966. He returned to California after leaving a trail of destruction and both broken promises and dreams in his wake.
While it is easy to cast Robert Dunfield in the role of villain, the truth is never so black and white, and often it is easy to forget that he was an expert geologist. His expertise provided valuable information for future efforts on the island such as his conclusion that the alleged flood tunnel system at Smith’s Cove did not, in fact, exist as a manmade construct, anything that was there being localised to the beach. Yet while Dunfield was responsible for rediscovering the location of the original workings at the Money Pit, the possibly important south shore shaft, plus the construction of the invaluable causeway, these achievements cannot be reasonably balanced against the wilful and whole-scale destruction wrought across the island.
Robert Dunfield changed the face of Oak Island forever, drastically transforming the landscape and destroying critical historical and archaeological points of potential interest. Dunfield’s strategy undoubtedly destroyed valuable evidence that would have been invaluable information in future searches to date, not to mention having potentially destroyed important historical relics of cultural value to the people of Nova Scotia. While Dunfield may have considered pottery or the discarded remains of previous searches to be an irrelevance and some contend that nobody would have cared what had happened if he’d found the treasure, all history is valuable.
All history tells a story, not only the history of any original work on Oak Island but also the history of the search itself. For a man as intelligent and dedicated to the cause of Oak Island as he was, it is a shame that history will record Robert Dunfield as one of the few villains in the ongoing saga of the Oak Island legend. Whether the widespread reputation of Robert Dunfield is fair or not, like so much connected with the island, remains to be seen.