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The Hidden Treasure on a Chesapeake Bay Island

Tom Pelton

In the early 19th century there was a Baltimore tavern owner and merchant named Joseph Hart. He had his own, unconventional way of looking at the world – and he did not trust banks.

He was also somewhat strange and secretive. And so all of the money that he earned from his tavern, he snuck offshore in a boat and buried on a tiny, marshy island east of Essex, at the mouth of the Back River in the Chesapeake Bay.

As legend had it, the tavern owner – in his legitimate business dealings or otherwise – also somehow came into possession of a barrel full of gold pieces.  And so he also buried that on what became known as Hart Island.

Mr. Hart then died.  And over the decades, Hart Island was used for a variety of purposes. In the latter 19th century, it held a farm with three houses and several fields and orchards.  Then it was purchased by a construction company magnate, George Mahoney. His plans to turn Hart Island into a glamorous summer resort failed as badly as his campaign for governor.

In 1975, the state bought the island and a neighboring swampy patch called Miller Island.  Both of them were once part of a long peninsula stretching northeast from what is now North Point State Park.

Eight years later, the state began using Hart and Miller islands as a dump.  The islands received the millions of cubic yards of mud and sand that the Army Corps of Engineers dredged from the bottom of the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay every year to keep them deep enough to allow large ships to enter the Port of Baltimore.

Through all of this shoveling and scheming, however, nobody ever found Joseph Hart’s gold.

And so on a recent afternoon, I decided to give it a try.

I set off in my kayak from Rocky Point Park, south of Middle River.  A stiff breeze was blowing from the west, driving me forward across the choppy gray-green waves.  I passed a line of fishermen, standing on the boulders at the tip of rocky point, casting their lines.

After about a mile of paddling across open water, I saw a forest rise up – a wall of tall trees, flanking a sandy beach fringed with reeds waving in the wind. This was Hart Miller Island. It’s a remarkably pristine and beautiful place, considering that -- until eight years ago, it was a dump for dredging waste. In the distance to the west, I could see the smokestacks of coal-fired power plants and cranes that mark Baltimore’s industrial waterfront.

I landed on the beach.  And then spent several hours exploring the long stretches of sand, climbing over gnarled trees that had tumbled into the water. 

To examine the interior of the island, I had to force my way through a wall of thorns, thistles and poison ivy guarded by an air force of mosquitos. A red fox, who now seems to own the island, seemed amused.

Once I was past that, the island – now a public wildlife preserve -- revealed its bounty. A great blue heron stood beside a pond that mirrored the sky and a silvery half moon.  The path I was walking on was built from a mesh of steel, holding rocks – evidence that this was an island that had been built up, artificially, during its years as a landfill for dredge material.

The sun set, burning the beaches and grasses a brilliant gold.  As it turns out, Joseph Hart’s treasure was never lost. It just wasn’t in the form people expected.

Photo of Hart Miller Island by Tom Pelton

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.