The treasure lore of Hart Island

The treasure lore of Hart Island
By Jackie Nickel

A friend recently shared with me a tale worth repeating and preserving. This legend, centering on Hart Island (now part of a dredged spoils disposal site) was first told in both daily newspapers, The Baltimore News American and The Evening Sun, in 1913. It was revived in 1971 in a dissertation written by Darryl C. Ruppert, “The Treasure Trove of Hart’s Island,” and shared with the Heritage Society of Essex and Middle River, which was given permission to reproduce it. That is how my friend acquired a copy, which she passed on to me.

Joseph Hart, a wealthy Englishman born of a prominent family, lived on Hart Island in the mid-1800s and it was there, it is said, he buried his fortune. The man, a tavern and livery owner, was described as an eccentric who feared robbers and thus buried his fortune. He died in 1852, leaving a wife and several daughters. The secret of exactly where his treasure was buried seemingly died with him.

The story of Hart’s buried gold was resurrected in 1913 when six men, led by a John Wagner, made an effort to access the island to search for what was described as a treasure trove of buried treasure. The team had assembled information, from unidentified sources, describing Joseph as a miser who hid his gold beneath the ground because he was afraid to keep it in the house and didn’t trust banking institutions. They claimed they had a map indicating treasure buried near a waterfall, the gold contained in two boxes and two tanks, no more than three feet deep. The value, in both bars and coin, was estimated at $15,000, a large sum for the day.

When the treasure seekers went public with their mission, the new owner (the property had passed through several hands) denied them entry onto the island. In newspaper accounts, where two of Hart’s daughters were interviewed, their long held secret of buried gold was revealed. And the survivors immediately laid claim to any treasure that might be found.

Anyone who knew Hart Island was familiar with the flat, marshy terrain with no possibility of a waterfall. Wagner, however, determined waterfall to mean a gully or “a falling away of ground to cause drainage of water.” On the north side of the island were some long neglected irrigation canals that he considered as fitting the description of the treasure’s location.

In news accounts, one of the daughters of Joseph Hart reported seeing her father unearthing a keg of gold coins and moving it to another location. Joseph had been robbed more than once and feared burglars, she said. Only his wife knew where Hart buried his gold for safekeeping. And she went to her grave without revealing the location to her daughters.

The Harts had acquired the island in 1821. At the time it consisted of 264 acres, while Millers Island, which they also owned, was 124 acres. There was a large “rough hewn timber house with walnut window frames” built on the island before the Harts owned it. “Luxuriant trumpet vines” covered one side of the house, which was leased to hunters during ducking season. A grove of sweet gum trees was nearby. The family evidently lived in Baltimore City near Hart’s Tavern on Front St. and spent summer months on the island.

Mr. Hart died in 1852, leaving the children to search relentlessly for his buried gold. They finally gave up in 1858 and sold the land to Frederick Schumaker, it was reported by Mr. Ruppert. At the turn of the century the isle was the home of the Millers Island Ducking Club.

The Baltimore Atlas of 1877 shows Miller Island (or Little Island as it was labeled) to the north, with the larger Hart Island in the center, and to the south and closest to the mainland, Pleasure Island. A narrow channel separated Hart and Miller. The land eroded drastically over the decades as tides and storms took their toll. By 1933, Hart Island was down to 180 acres and Miller to 70. A bridge which had connected the islands to the mainland was destroyed by the Hurricane of 1933. It was not replaced until 1937.

Muskrat hunters took up residence at the old Hart house in 1938, trapping nine a day and receiving at least 70¢ for each pelt sold to furriers. By 1943, the 100-year-old clubhouse had collapsed and its foundation was washing away. In 1947, Baltimore political figure George P. Mahoney purchased the property with plans for building new homes and recreational areas. His project never got off the ground, although New Bay Shore Park was established.

By the late 40s, Hart had eroded more and by 1959 it had shrunk to 150 acres while Miller was just 52. Mahoney sold the isles to Bethlehem Steel in 1965.

Only one treasure seeker was reported to have found any gold on the beach of Hart Island over the years: One gold coin, possibly English.

When Ruppert penned the tale of buried treasure over 30 years ago, the threat of Hart and Miller Islands being converted into a dike to hold dredged spoils was looming. Beth Steel had sold the land to the Langenfelder sand and gravel company, which was negotiating with the state government. He surmised any trove buried near the mid-1800s shoreline was already under water. Today it would be under tens of thousands of tons of material dredged from harbor channels and bay tributaries.

2022 First Responders Appreciation Day

First Responders Appreciation Day took place on Saturday, May 21, 2022 from 11 am – 1 pm. Museum visitors stopped by for a tour of the Essex Museum and met some of our favorite First Responders and their vehicles: Baltimore County Police Department, Maryland Transportation Authority Police with armored vehicle and K-9 unit, Essex Volunteer Fire Department, and special guest Purkey’s Party Pumper fire-throwing, bubble blowing fire engine. The events was free for all ages!

2022 Purple Saturday

Purple Saturday!

August 27, 2022, 11 am to 1 pm

Please join us for our FREE Purple Saturday Open House featuring a special appearance by Baltimore Ravens Super Fan CAPTAIN DEE-FENSE!! He will meet fans and take pictures! Also we will have Museum tours, kids’ activities and more! Our gift shop will be open and we are now accepting credit and debit cards. Don’t forget to wear your purple! 💜

Christmas at the Museum, 2022

2022 Essex Community Tree Lighting

Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, 5 – 7 pm

Please join us for this fun family event featuring a fire truck parade for Santa’s arrival, special gifts for the kids, photos with Santa, a DJ, snacks and more. This event is always FREE for the community, and last year we had more than 400 guests! It’s a great way to kick off the holidays!

Thank you to our 2022 Sponsors


Cliff’s Hi-Tech
Cliff’s Direct Effect
Essex Day Festival
Albright’s Mechanical
Frostee Tree Farm
Medstar Health
Power Factor
Sullivan’s Garage
Walmart Carroll Island
Delegate Ric Metzgar


Alice’s Restaurant
Tradepoint Atlantic
Connelly Funeral Home of Essex
Jeff’s Automotive
East Coast Autos
Essex Car Wash
County Councilman Todd Crandell
Buon Appetito Essex
Senator Johnny Ray Salling


Cogar Printing
Two Guys Grill
Zips Cleaners
Bafitis & Associates
Kelly Coleman-Slocum, Century 21
Baltimore Boating Center
Charly’s Sue Creek
Upper Bay Boating
Doug Kottraba State Farm
Delegate Robin Grammer
Domino’s Essex
Chick-fil-a Martin Plaza
Rick’s Sports Bar and Grill


Avenue News
Dundalk Eagle

2022 Holiday Open House and Evening with our Historian

Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022, 7 – 9 pm

Paul M. Blitz has served as the Heritage Society Historian for over 30 years and shares a lifetime of Essex historical knowledge at our Museum lectures.

Please join us for a holiday open house which will include a presentation by Heritage Society Historian Paul M. Blitz. Mr. Blitz has been the Historian for more than three decades, and he offers a wealth of knowledge about our area’s rich history. This educational and entertaining discussion will highlight Maryland’s important role in the Civil War. Visitors will also have the unique opportunity to see the Museum decorated for the holidays! The event is free and open to the public.

A look inside the museum decorated for Christmas.

2022 Christmas Tree Decorating

Thanks to everyone who came out to decorate at the museum today, especially George and the Power Factor crew! Can’t wait to see our 2,000 new lights at night!

2021 Essex Community Tree Lighting

The Essex community joined us on Saturday, December 4, 2021 for some holiday cheer as we lit our 25-foot Norway Spruce! We had appearances by Santa and fire trucks with gifts for the kids, Museum tours and more!

Santa Sponsors:
Cliffs Hi-Tech
Cliffs Direct Effect
Essex Day Festival
Frostee Tree Farm/Paul Stiffler
Medstar Health
Del. Ric Metzgar
Power Factor/George Lang
Sullivan’s Garage
Walmart Carroll Island

Frosty Sponsors:
Alice’s – A Family Restaurant
East Coast Autos
Jeff’s Automotive
Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center
Tradepoint Atlantic

Elf Sponsors:
Connelly Funeral Home of Essex
Councilman Todd Crandell
Cox’s Properties
Delegate Robin Grammer
LaBrands Florist
Senator Johnny Ray Salling
Kelly Coleman-Slocum
Two Guys Grill
Zips Dry Cleaners

Media Sponsor: 
The Avenue News

Special thanks to: Essex Volunteer Fire Company, DJ Russell Slocum, MC Karie May

2021 Ghost Hunts

Essex Museum Paranormal Preview Night

Friday, October 22, 2021

Join us at the Essex Museum for our Paranormal Preview Night! The Baltimore Paranormal Society will be on hand to discuss how they conduct paranormal investigations, demonstrate their equipment, and tell stories about recent ghostly activity in the building. You’ll also get a paranormal tour of the Museum, showing all of the spirits’ favorite hotspots! This event is FREE and open to the public. The Museum will be decorated for Halloween and the gift shop will be open! For questions or to RSVP, email us at

Paranormal magnets now available at the museum!

Ghosts N’at Paranormal Adventure at the Museum

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Go on a REAL ghost hunt in ESSEX, MD Halloween Weekend with Ghosts N’at Paranormal Adventures! Tickets are on sale now for this special event at the haunted Heritage Museum of Essex & Middle River / Former Fire & Police Station!

It’s Baseball Season!

Batter Up!

It’s springtime again in Essex, Maryland and that means baseball and opening day – time to throw out the first pitch! Take a look at Essex baseball players from seasons past as we explore the museum’s Baumgartner Collection Book #74: Baseball.

Baumgartner Collection Book #74: Baseball

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Read PDF online at

Read these articles from the Baumgartner Collection Book #74: Baseball and more online at

Christmas in Old Baltimore with Historian Wayne Schaumburg

On Thursday, December 12, 2019 we welcomed Baltimore historian and educator Wayne R. Schaumburg for a talk on “Christmas In Old Baltimore” to learn all about Baltimore holiday traditions and how they have changed over the years! Mr. Schaumburg focused on some of Baltimore’s great holiday customs from the 1940s to the 1960s, including downtown shopping, visiting Santa, the Toytown Parade, firehouse train gardens, aluminum trees and more.

Before Mr. Schaumberg’s talk, we welcomed visitors to tour the Heritage Society — all decked out for the holidays — and enjoy light refreshments.

2019 Heritage Society Annual Holiday Open House and Tree Lighting

We are holding our annual Essex Tree Lighting & Holiday Open House on Saturday, December 7th, 2019 from 5 to 7 pm.  Please join us for this fun family event featuring a fire truck parade for Santa’s arrival, special gifts for the kids, photos with Santa, a DJ, snacks and more. This event is always FREE for the community, and last year we had more than 400 guests! It’s a great way to kick off the holidays!