Could a pirate treasure on the Ohio River be lost for good?

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Flatboats on Ohio were often the victim of piracy, carried about by marauders whose treasures may still be stowed there.

Every month we publish several stories regarding West Virginia mysteries, so, perhaps not surprisingly, I field plenty of questions about buried treasure here. (Join us on or sign-up for our to follow along.) A reader recently inquired about a pirate’s treasure secreted near Blennerhassett Island on the Ohio River near Parkersburg, and I didn’t have to dig far to find answers.

Pirates on the Ohio River? Absolutely! Up until just after the Civil War, large parts of valley of the Ohio were sparsely settled, and marauders in watercraft hid easily in the river’s coves, sporadically raiding communities and ships.

The completion of the National Road in 1818 opened an overland route from the Atlantic seaboard to the Ohio at Wheeling, after which commercial traffic on the river swelled. Not coincidentally, Memphis and Cincinnati were established a year later.

Cave-in-Rock, a pirate stronghold.

The opportunity to plunder along the route, far from civil authority, was extremely attractive. River piracy was already commonplace on the lower Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and, from about 1790 to 1834, , Illinois, about 80 miles of the river’s confluence with the Mississippi, was the lair of several bands of pirates and outlaws.

But what of buried treasure near Parkersburg, West Virginia? The most extensive citation I’ve found regarding a treasure there was from Jim Comstock, editor of the West Virginia Heritage Encyclopedia.

According to Comstock, the “Coal Holler Treasure” as late as 1976 had not been found. In volume 5, page 1048, Comstock writes:

COAL HOLLER TREASURE

“After the Civil War, as land along the Ohio River became more settled, a concerted drive was made to eliminate the river pirates who had long hampered commerce along that waterway. After considerable harassment by the militia, the pirates began to disperse. It is said that one prominent pirate was seen to have come ashore between Blennershassett Island on the West Virginia shore near the head of Washington Bottom on what was known as the Butcher Farm. Here he disappeared into the forest at a place called Coal Holler, and later he was seen unencumbered by the large sack which he had brought when he landed. Since that time numerous treasure seekers have gone to Coal Holler to try to locate the hidden treasure, but as of this writing it remains lost.”

1905 map showing Coal Hollow

Alas! Coal Hollow was practically obliterated during construction of the U.S. 50 expressway in the 1980s. The four-lane highway utilized the little valley to descend from the uplands west of Parkersburg to the banks of the Ohio River. What its four lanes didn’t destroy, exit and entrance ramps to riverside Dupont Road did. No report of the treasure publicly surfaced during construction.

2018 Google Map showing Coal Hollow

Does this mean the treasure, if indeed stowed along the river, was destroyed? If it was hidden in the hollow, chances are it has been. But as uncertain as the tale itself, the treasure could have been stowed in other coves along the way. Sandy Creek notably opens into a large embayment at the lower end of the bottom, and, a mile further, Lamps Hollow would seem another interesting place to stow an ill-gotten trove.

Will the Coal Holler Treasure ever be recovered? Based on the number of people who peruse our stories for clues, I’d say there are enough treasure hunters out there to at least increase the odds, if it ever existed.


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