Rumors of buried treasure persist around Topsail Island, and the best documented story of a search for it occurred before World War II.
Is there gold from a shipwreck waiting to be found on Topsail Island? Or was it, as some believe, dug up by treasure hunters who then mysteriously disappeared into the night? Or was it never there? No one knows for sure.
But we do know this: After being driven far off course in a 1750 hurricane, sailors in a Spanish armada of five vessels were tossed about in the Atlantic Ocean before being smashed against Topsail Island. One of the vessels, El Salvatore, was carrying 240,000 silver coins and other treasure.
Centuries later, treasure hunters thought they knew where it was buried — at a site just south of the Surf City town line.
A syndicate of New York of investors known as Carolina Expedition Company searched for that treasure from 1937 to 1941. They erected a large, A-frame derrick and winch to dig through the sand. Sifting debris carefully as they went, they eventually dug a hole that was 40 feet deep and 4 feet wide. They brought in equipment to pump out water once they reached the water line on the undeveloped island. The work was backbreaking and dangerous, but their hopes were buoyed by pieces of hand-tooled, rotten wood they believed were from the El Salvadore. The treasurer hunters used an early version of a metal detector to augment maps to locate buried gold or silver. To test it, they buried a gold watch in the sand and found it in each of their tests.
Kenneth Andrews, a local workman hired for the project, told his story of the experience in Echoes of Topsail: Stories of the Island’s Past by David Stallman: “I’ve been digging sand for three years in this hell hole. Fought stinging sand, breaking my back throwing sand through screens, wondering if the treasure was just a pipe dream. What if there is nothing down there at all? If we do get rich beyond our dreams, what will we do with it?”
Then suddenly the work came to an abrupt halt.
“…One evening the local men were laid off,” reported a Pender Chronicle article in 1965. “The next morning the entire expedition was gone. Did they find treasure and take it away in the night? It adds romance to the story to think of them stealthily hauling chests of gold across the sound in the dead of night — but no one seems to know for sure.”
Did they find the gold and abscond with it before alerting anyone or did the project shut down because they ran out of money? At this point, we will probably never know.
Janine Stidley, director of the Missiles and More Museum, says interest in the Gold Hole disappeared with World War II.
Topsail Island was used for Operation Bumblebee, an effort to develop rockets for use in propulsion and missiles from 1946 to 1948.
“The island was taken over by the federal government, so treasure hunters would not have had access even if they wanted it,” Stidley says.
Reports of gold buried on the island still spur dreams today and probably always will. There are rumors that the 1700s pirate Blackbeard buried treasure on the strand and that the retreating Confederate Army buried a chest of gold in a pond near where Highways 17 and 210 converge. Neither have ever been found.
Want to know more?
The Missiles and More Museum in Topsail Beach has an exhibit on the Gold Hole. The book Echoes of Topsail: Stories of the Island’s Past by David Stallman is available at the museum. Find the museum at 720 Channel Boulevard in Topsail Beach or visit missilesandmoremuseum.org