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

Could pirate treasure on the Ohio River be lost for good?
Flatboats on Ohio were often the victim of piracy, carried about by marauders whose treasures may still be stowed there.

Until just after the Civil War, large parts of the valley of the Ohio River were controlled by pirates. Sparsely settled, marauders in watercraft hid easily in the river's coves, sporadically raiding ships and riverside communities.


Cave-in-Rock on the lower Ohio was once a notorious pirate stronghold.
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, Cave-In-Rock in Illinois, about 80 miles northeast of the river's confluence with the Mississippi, was the lair of several bands of pirates and outlaws.

One of the most renowned tales of buried treasure concerns a trove reportedly buried in Coal Hollow near Parkersburg, West Virginia. The most extensive citation about treasure there was recorded by 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, he wrote:


"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 Blennerhassett 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."

Section of 1905 U.S. Geologic Survey Map showing Coal Hollow, site of the legendary Coal Holler Treasure.
1905 map showing Coal Hollow, at center

Treasure or not, Coal Hollow was practically obliterated during the construction of the U.S. 50 expressway in the 1980s. The four-lane highway used it to descend from the uplands to the banks of the Ohio River. What its four lanes didn't destroy, exit and entrance ramps to Dupont Road did. No report of the treasure surfaced during construction.

Section of a 2018 Google Map showing Coal Hollow and the U.S. 50 expressway.
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.

Treasure hunters with keeping an eye on West Virginia may also wish to explorer the tale of the Lost Branch Mountain Treasure of the state's eastern panhandle.

For more information on the Coal Hollow Treasure or about visiting the area, contact the Greater Parkersburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.

'Graveyard of the Ohio' now a favorite tourist destination

1910 topo map showing Graveyard of the Ohio below Parkersburg, West Virginia.
1910 topo map showing Graveyard of the Ohio River below Parkersburg, West Virginia.

The Ohio River below Parkersburg, West Virginia, was long ago known as the Graveyard of the Ohio and was considered one of the most dangerous sections on the 981-mile river. Now a popular destination for water recreation, it was long littered with the wrecks of steamers and barges, and mariners untold met their ends in its watery depths. Read the full story here.


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