During the Thanksgiving break this year, I took some time to visit the Lynn Woods in Lynn Massachusetts, a beautiful nature reservation encompassing lakes, swamps, rock formations, a small mountain, endless woodland…
…and, according to legend, a pirate treasure that has been buried for centuries.
Growing up near Lynn, I’d always heard the stories about pirate treasure buried in the Lynn Woods at a place ominously called “Dungeon Rock,” but I’d never actually visited. This past Saturday, I decided to finally make the trek.
With my two brothers in tow, we made our way along Dungeon Trail for about a mile…
Then we saw it on our left, a shadowy rock rising up from the dirt: Dungeon Rock!
We walked up a set of worn, crooked stone steps…
…toward a large boulder formation at the summit.
Just before heading into Dungeon Rock through the gap…
…I gotta admit, I had a Goonies moment looking at the rock on the right, which is known for (somewhat) resembling a skull in profile:
The gap takes you in about 10 feet or so. And if you happen to turn into that small overhang on the right…
…you’ll find a heavy iron door protecting Dungeon Rock and the pirate treasure inside from intruders.
Today, the door was open.
In 1658, an unmarked ship appeared in Lynn Harbor. As it made its way up the Saugus River, stopping at the Saugus Iron Works to pick up such supplies as shovels and hatches, word quickly spread that pirates were in town.
The pirates had barely anchored in an area known today as Pirate’s Glen when British soldiers set out to capture them. All were apprehended save for a man named Thomas Veal, who allegedly escaped into the Lynn Woods with the pirate’s loot. He took up residence in this cave, located at the base of the rock formation pictured above.
Today, if you try to enter Veal’s cave…
…you won’t get more than a few feet: it collapsed during an earthquake, killing or sealing Veal inside with his treasure. Hence the name “Dungeon Rock.”
In the 1830′s, two attempts were made to blow the cave open with kegs of gunpowder, but little progress was made.
Fast forward about 200 years to 1852. The spiritualism fad was at its peak, and a Charlton man named Hiram Marble started to believe he was receiving psychic messages from Thomas Veal, urging him to dig for his treasure. Hoping to prove the validity of spiritualism once and for all (and of course, find the treasure), he purchased the five acres of land surrounding Dungeon Rock and began blasting from the top down, beginning in the gap caused by the earthquake.
Marble’s plan was to build a tunnel that looped down and around into Veal’s blocked-up cave.
Through a heavy iron door (unlocked for us by a very friendly park ranger named Dan)…
…is a set of wooden steps, descending sharply into the cave for about 15 feet or so.
The staircase is new, installed about 20 years ago to replace Marble’s rotting steps.
We started into the cave, which began winding deeper into the ground through solid rock. Though the tunnel looks bright in the pictures thanks to the flash, it was actually pitch dark inside, and our flashlights did very little to brighten the way.
Marble dug at a rate of about a foot a month, drilling holes into solid rock face, packing the holes with powder, and then blowing it all up.
Marble’s son Edwin eventually joined in the digging, which he continued after Hiram’s death in 1868 until his own demise in 1880.
How did they know what direction to take? The spirits directed them via seance. In the end, their tunnel was 172 feet deep.
As the dig went on, having already spent over $50,000 of their own funds, the Marbles became desperate for money, and began charging for tours. This drawing appeared in an 1878 newspaper describing the attraction:
The picture shows late 19th-century tourists entering the main steps…
…with a drawing of (presumably) Edwin at work, and the entrance of the cave (with a long-gone tool shed):
The Marbles also sold bonds for a dollar, entitling the bearer to a share of the treasure. The picture below is from the wonderful Friends of the Lynn Woods website, which has a ton of information about Dungeon Rock.
Ultimately, these bonds proved to be worthless – to this day, not a single piece of treasure has ever been found at Dungeon Rock (though some tools – perhaps those purchased at the Saugus Iron Works? – were found during the digging).
As we neared the end of the tunnel, the ceiling suddenly dropped down to just a few feet, and the walls became much narrower, as if Edwin was making one final, desperate push for a treasure he’d never find.
We finally came to a small pool of water, marking the end of the search for the treasure of Dungeon Rock.
Here’s the thing – according to the park ranger Dan, at this point, the Marbles had LONG dropped below where Veal’s cave would have been. Worse, they had veered in completely the wrong direction. As we returned to the entrance, Dan pointed out a clear mark in the ceiling, suggesting where the cave-in had occurred…
…and that the Marbles would have been much closer to the mark had they dug to the left of the staircase.
Edwin Marble is buried just outside the cave beneath an old hemlock tree.
The Marbles built a bunch of structures around Dungeon Rock, and if you look, you can still find traces. This is the cellar hole for the Marbles’ wooden house.
Across the road, you can find remnants of another cellar hole, which would have been the foundation for a boarding house for tourists (it was never completed).
Finally, far to the rear of the cave is this angled wall, which may have been built to protect on-lookers during blasting.
Was there ever any pirate treasure to begin with?
Probably not. Though numerous legends abound about a Tom Veal (or Veale) living in the cave (one says he shacked up with a pirate captain named Harris and two Spanish ladies), as well as the purchase of shovels, shackles and hatchets from the nearby Saugus Iron Works, there’s not a single written historical record until 1820…at which point, it was all a twice-told tale.
Meanwhile, another legend suggests someone named Brown found some of the treasure in 1816, and that he might have been coerced into revealing where the rest was. But, also according to legend, his relatives put him in the Ipswich Asylum for Incurably Insane People.
Thankfully, Hiram’s work was not completely in vain. One of his goals was to use the treasure money to purchase more land, to be donated to Lynn as a free public forest. This dream was achieved after his son’s death, when Lynn purchased the land to form the Lynn Woods.
Treasure or not, I cannot recommend a trip to Dungeon Rock and the Lynn Woods highly enough. You have to email the ranger in advance to be sure he’s on duty (otherwise, you’ll find that iron door heavily padlocked).
But the cave is well-worth it. Completely pitch-black, with only the sound of water eerily dripping down, I promise the claustrophobia will set in when you get to the bottom and realize you’re beneath 172 feet of solid rock (and while you’re down there, turn out your flashlight and think of all the spirits Hiram Marble was supposedly communicating with for all those years).
Be sure to leave time to explore the rest of the Lynn Woods. If nothing else, take the trail up Mount Gilead…
…where you will be treated to an insane view of the Boston skyline, rising up out of what seems to be an endless forest.
PS – I know there’s an important life lesson to be learned from the story of Hiram Marble, but I gotta tell you – I’d kill to have the chance to dig into the area Ranger Dan thinks would have led into Veal’s old cave!