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Laginas with map
The treasure-hunting Laginas peruse a map of Oak Island before setting out on a new adventure. (Image courtesy of Prometheus Entertainment.)

Wolverines dig for treasure

By Lara Zielin

Pirates’ booty

“There is an island in the North Atlantic, where people have been looking for an incredible treasure for more than 200 years.” 

Rick Lagina

Alex Lagina (left) and Rick Lagina (right) are determined to break the “curse of Oak Island.” (Image courtesy of Prometheus Entertainment.)

So begin the opening credits for “The Curse of Oak Island,” a History Channel series that chronicles the real-life search for buried treasure by brothers Marty and Rick Lagina, along with Marty’s son, Alex Lagina, their business partners, and a few grizzled treasure hunters who have dedicated whole lifetimes to searching for this fabled horde.

The search — for what, they are not quite sure — has taken them to a nondescript location off the coast of Nova Scotia. It’s a tree-covered scrap of land with an elephantine shape.

Speculation abounds about what might be buried on Oak Island. Some believe it’s the Holy Grail and Ark of the Covenant, carried overseas by the Knights Templar. It could be treasure chests full of gold from Spanish pirates. Even the missing jewels of Marie Antoinette are rumored to have made it to the island, ferried by members of the French Navy after the French Revolution.

Which is exactly why a small camera crew from the History Channel follows the Laginas and company to the deserted location, filming most of the spring and summer and into the fall. They wrap after the leaves change, when snowfall looms and it’s getting too hard to break through the cold Canadian ground.

Before they shut down production, however, they capture footage of dangerous holes more than 160 feet deep, Spanish coins, wooden ship planks dating to the 17th century, and stone carvings rumored to be the work of the Knights Templar. And, of course, a Block M or two.

Marty Lagina graduated from U-M’s Law School in 1982, and his son, Alex Lagina, graduated from U-M’s College of Engineering in 2008. Neither could have predicted that their U-M degrees would play into their efforts to outwit a centuries-old “curse.”

Theory versus practice

People mover on Oak Island

Talk about a big dig. (Image courtesy of Prometheus Entertainment.)

“It’s a really complicated engineering problem,” Alex says of the enormous holes the team has constructed around the area where teenager Daniel McGinnis first began digging for treasure in 1795. McGinnis and his friends would go on to found the Onslow Company, which would dig to 90 feet — unearthing a layer of oak logs every 10 feet, in addition to a mysterious stone carving — before seeping seawater would force them out. The water, rumored to be from a sprung booby trap, would foil generations of treasure hunters to come.

Hypothesizing about what could be in the pit and how to retrieve it is one thing, Alex says. Just getting there is something quite different.

“I think that’s the case throughout the island,” he says. “The theory is great, but when you try to implement something in the real world, it gets complicated quickly.”

Complicated enough to cause death, even. In 1861, the boiler on a steam engine water pump burst, scalding and killing one worker and injuring others. In 1959, Robert Restall, a former daredevil motorcyclist who’d moved to Oak Island with his family to treasure hunt, lost consciousness, reportedly from poisonous gases unearthed in the dig, and fell into one of the pits. His son, Robert Restall Jr., died trying to save him, along with Kal Graseser, Restall’s partner, and worker Cyril Hiltz.

Safe cracking

These days, the Laginas have taken a safer approach, bringing in state-of-the-art equipment to pound reinforced cylinders into the ground, while utilizing high-tech cameras and trained divers to explore what could be at the bottom. It sounds exciting, but it’s a slow, careful approach.

“Some of the more rigorous calculations don’t make the show,” Alex says, “meaning it’s not great TV to watch someone calculate the flow rate for a pump.”

“I’ve been hearing about Oak Island since I was a kid,” Alex says. “Every time I visited my family in the U.P., I heard something.”
Marty himself is no stranger to complicated digs. He holds an undergraduate engineering degree from Michigan Tech, and started Terra Energy, an oil and gas company, while he was still in law school at U-M.

“I already had a career to go back to, so if I screwed up [in law school] there was less pressure,” he says of his time at U-M. “The professors were so bright, it was a joy to be in those classrooms. If you took the pressure off yourself, if you said, ‘I can only do what I can do,’ it was enjoyable.”

After graduation, Marty continued to grow his oil and gas company, ultimately selling it in 1995. After a short break, he jumped into renewables and owns a handful of wind farms today — as well as the Villa Mari vineyard near Traverse City, Mich.

Marty’s grandma was an Italian immigrant who moved to the town of Kingsford in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and “always had a barrel of wine in the basement,” Alex says. “Dad likes to say wine is in his blood.” Today, Alex works at the vineyard as its general manager.

A family affair

Marty Lagina

Marty Lagina takes a close look at a new discovery. (Image courtesy of Prometheus Entertainment.)

In Kingsford, Marty grew up side-by-side with his older brother, Rick Lagina, who spearheaded the obsession with Oak Island beginning in 1965, when Rick read a Readers Digest article about the mystery.

“The story had everything,” Marty says. “Pirates, booby traps, treasure. [Rick] just never let it go in a sense.”

Rick would bring up the Oak Island mystery at family holidays, which is where Alex was first exposed to the tale.

“I’ve been hearing about Oak Island since I was a kid,” he says. “Every time I visited my family in the U.P., I heard something.”

Marty says they “stuck a toe” into Oak Island when parts of it came up for sale, with the History Channel premiering their hunt for treasure in 2014. The fourth season recently wrapped up with the discovery of a finishing nail from a Spanish galleon dating back to the 1500s, a button likely from a late-1700s British military uniform, and a corner plate that one expert said is from a treasure chest. It’s tantalizing evidence, though not the mountains of gold that the Oak Island mystery hints could exist.

Not that Marty and Alex are banking on chests full of treasure. Both remain skeptical about what they’ll find in the end.

“Whether it’s treasure, I’m not sure,” Marty says. “My brother remains convinced that there’s something there.” And like any good brother, Marty hopes Rick is right — for Rick’s sake.

Alex shares the same cautious outlook, but appreciates the fact that the hunt has brought him closer to family.

“It’s an opportunity to spend time with my uncle and dad doing this crazy adventure, and that’s a great thing,” he says.

A different kind of reality

Lagina with sandbag

Time for some heavy lifting. (Image courtesy of Prometheus Entertainment.)

The familial bonds and the group’s mutual respect for one another are unique in the reality television realm, where drama and bad behavior are par for the course.

“We said we’re not going to do fake fights and scream at each other,” Marty says. He suspects the show’s genuine relationships are what make it one of the History Channel’s most popular series to date.

“Paraphrasing my uncle, we wanted to do the search justice and honor the people who came before us in this adventure,” Alex says. “We wanted to give them the fullest respect and honor their commitment.”

There’s no word yet on whether the History Channel will be back to film season five, but camera crews or no, the Laginas will keep searching.

“I’ve never been involved in something so gratifying,” Marty says, “because everyone wants you to succeed.”

Lara Zielin

Lara Zielin

LARA ZIELIN is the editorial director at U-M's Bentley Historical Library. Prior to working for the Bentley, Zielin was editorial director at U-M's College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. In addition, she is a published author of young adult fiction.