A piece of history left Gainesville 135 years ago, but now it’s back.
A diving bell — the only one of its kind still left from the Civil War — was unearthed from the Chestatee River decades ago and is finally being restored before it is displayed in downtown Dahlonega.
Usually found in port towns such as New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston, S.C., the diving bell was used in Dahlonega in 1875 to mine gold at the bottom of the river. The object, which measures 8 feet high, 15 feet long and almost 6 feet wide, allowed divers a place to breathe under water while skimming river bottoms.
Historians have compared the design to turning a glass upside down in water, which creates a pocket of air at the top.
“It’s a very rare piece of Civil War-era technology and the only one surviving of its kind,” said Chip Wright, project manager and preservation planner for the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission. “This diving bell should never have been here. It’s a good thing because that’s why it has survived.”
During the metal drives of World War I and World War II, bells of this type were melted down and used by the military, he said.
“This was lying on the bottom of the river and forgotten for all these years,” he said. “You can read about these in books and see drawings, but this one is even more unique because it was customized to serve in a gold mining operation.”
Philologus Loud, a Dahlonega inventor and entrepreneur, was doing business in New Orleans when he came up with the idea to use the bell to search for gold. The Benjamin Mallifert bell model, which includes two hatches and a pressurized air-lock system to create a pocket of air under water, was part of the salvaging ship named The Glide that scanned the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers.
Loud bought the bell when the ship was converted to a package steamer. The bell was loaded onto a rail car and reached the end of its rail trip in Gainesville, where it was loaded onto a Southern Express wagon and toted to Dahlonega.
In 1983, local gold miners decided to pull out the object that fishers had noticed.
“The gold miners knew what it was right way,” said Anne Amerson, a Dahlonega historian who has studied the bell for years. “I didn’t see it until 1990, and we still haven’t figured out everything about it.”
Amerson and historian Chris Worick found old newspaper clips about the bell and a ship used on the river in 1875 and 1876. The boat sank, and the last article found said officials suspected sabotage.
“The next few issues are missing, so we don’t know if anything else was reported,” she said. “People from far away started getting interested, and we decided to figure out what to do with it.”
The bell sat on the side of the river until 2003 when new property owner Birch River Golf Community asked a local metalworker to repair the top and paint it.
The bell was later moved to a nearby service road by new owner Achasta, the newly renamed residential golf community, until June 10.
“It was sitting there beside the maintenance area, and Achasta recognized the value of the bell and that it belonged to the community,” Amerson said. “They agreed to donate it to the city, and the city council voted to place it somewhere within walking distance of the square.”
The bell will be placed in a pavilion constructed in Hancock Park, located one block off the Dahlonega square. Last June, Amerson and Worick created a committee to decide what to do with the bell and in April named Wright, a maritime archaeologist, to oversee the conservation of the bell and submerged ship.
“Since the bell has been sitting out and exposed to the elements for so many years, we decided it should be stabilized and studied in great detail,” Wright said.
The bell was sent to Mike Cottrell in Gainesville, and a team is welding, painting and doing minor sandblasting to get the historic artifact back in shape.
“Being visionary, Mike Cottrell drew up a lifting device that we created in a few days to lift the bell onto a flatbed trailer,” said Steve Katona, who is heading up the conservation project under Cottrell. “It’s a big joint effort, and we’re being very patient. We want the end results to be perfect.”
Wright has been documenting the process on Facebook, posting pictures and updates to the “Chestatee River Diving Bell” profile.
He’s also adding updates about the newest project — investigating the sunken ship that held the bell.
On May 22, Wright, a diver, located the wrecked ship under water.
“It’s buried under sediment. The water of the Chestatee River is so cold, which gives a great degree of preservation,” he said. “The best place for it to be for now is where it’s at because the river has taken care of it all these years.”
Though Wright doesn’t plan to raise the ship above water, he wants to find the dimensions of the ship and figure out how it operated with the bell. Once the bell renovation is complete, the community is holding a fundraiser event July 31 at the Cottrell Ranch barn to raise money for the pavilion that will house the bell.
“We’ll have the bell fully stabilized and on a custom trailer at the event so people can look at it,” Wright said. “We don’t have a time line yet for when it will go in the square. The city is working out the details, but in the meantime it will be stored in a safe that is dry.”