By Anne Dismukes Amerson

My first encounter with the diving bell was in the summer of 1991. I was writing an article about the Chestatee River for the North Georgia Journal magazine, and I needed to see some historic sites that were inaccessible by land. Fortunately, Ben LaChance (owner of Appalachian Outfitters) knows the river like the back of his hand and readily agreed to be my guide for a canoe trip down the historic Chestatee. As we paddled downstream from the Hwy. 52 bridge, Ben began telling me about an old diving bell that had been pulled out of the river some years previously and was still lying on its side on the riverbank. I couldn't imagine how a diving bell could have been used in a river in the mountains of north Georgia and was eager to see such an unusual sight.

Ben moored the canoe and we scrambled up the steep bank. There, surrounded by tall weeds, lay a rusty old hulk that was entirely open on one side, which, Ben explained, was actually the bottom of the vessel, which sat on the river bed. "That's a diving bell?" I asked incredulously. "But diving bells are supposed to be round and enclosed. Wouldn't the water have rushed in and drowned anybody working inside?"

Ben reminded me that when a glass is turned upside down in a pan of water, there is always a pocket of air at the top. "Apparently air was pumped down to the miners," he explained, picking up a detached air tube and showing me a small hole near the pointed prow where it entered the bell.

Pointing to a gaping round hole in the top of the bell, Ben told me that miners had entered through an entry tube that had been attached to the bell but had been torn off when the vessel was pulled out of the river a decade earlier.

"What happened to it?" I wondered aloud. "Did it get washed downriver?"

Ben walked a few feet to the edge of the bank and pointed downward. There, clearly visible in shallow water lay a iron tube made of three sections riveted together.

"You can't see them from here, but there are hatches at either end," he explained. "Apparently the cabin was pressurized and the miners opened and closed them to maintain the pressure when they were entering and leaving."

"That's fascinating!" I exclaimed. "I can hardly wait to get home and start writing an article about this remarkable thing for The Dahlonega Nugget."


I needed more information and began asking people questions about the diving bell. Most of them looked as incredulous as I had felt initially about a diving bell being used in the Chestatee River. However, a few people were already aware of it and seemed happy to share what they knew. Slowly, the story began to emerge.

Over the years fisherman had noticed an old pipe sticking up out of the water and thought it might be the smoke stack of a sunken dredge boat. Bill Owens, whose family owned farmland on either side of the river, remembered swimming around the pipe when he was a boy. He had heard the stories but was puzzled as to why the pipe was sealed at the top if it was a smoke stack.

In 1981 John Weingard, a prospector dredging for gold in the Chestatee, became very curious about the pipe, especially when he discovered that it was attached to some sort of iron hulk. He told James Jones (foreman for Owens Farm at that time) that the object had hooks on it and offered to dive down and put cables on it if James would pull it out of the river. After conferring with the Owens, James agreed. When I contacted him, he related that it took half a day to haul the large iron vessel from the river, since it was anchored to the deck of a sunken boat buried in the sand. Unfortunately, the top of the bell was ripped open in the process.

I was unable to interview John Weingard, who was deceased by this time, but according to others who were there, he knew right away what they had found. "Lord-a-mercy, it's a diving bell!" he was reported to have exclaimed. To their surprise, what was thought to be a smoke stack was discovered to be an air lock for entering the bell. "When I saw how narrow the tube was, I didn't see how a big fellow could have gotten through it," James Jones reminisced.

When the bell was first pulled out of the river, it had been so well preserved by its watery and sandy covering that it was not even rusted. Some people remembered seeing lettering painted on the side indicating that it had been shipped to Gainesville, Georgia, by Southern Railway. However, later viewers described the bell as badly rusted with no indication of lettering. To add to the confusion, my research revealed that Southern Railway had not yet come into being in 1875 when the bell arrived.


In addition to interviewing people with any knowledge about the diving bell, I spent many hours at the library, viewing microfilms of old newspapers in search of any relevant information. Surely the arrival of a diving bell being brought to Lumpkin County for use in the Chestatee River would have been big news!

The editor of The Mountain Signal apparently did think the bell was newsworthy and ran several reports that supplied valuable information about the bell, including the time frame of its arrival and demise. The first item, dated August 14,1875 reported that "New operations are soon to be commenced...on an entirely new scheme, for working the bed of the [Chestatee] river. $50,000 is to be expended in machinery."

The August 21 issue noted that the superintendent of the Georgia Gold Mining Company "would soon be ready to commence operation on the Chestatee near Neisler's Ford...using a caisson for cutting off and drying up the bed of the river."

The item went on to describe the machine as "made of iron, ten feet long and eight feet high and operates underwater with men in the machine." The editor concluded by saying, "We hope to see this machine in operation at an early day. It will be quite a curiosity to the people of this section."

A November 6, 1875 item provided the fullest description of the boat enterprise of what was now called the Loud, Cook & Co. "This is a curiously constructed boat, with very fine machinery, for letting down a very large caisson, or diving bell, 6 by 14 by 8 feet high. When lowered to the river bed, air is pumped in and the water excluded, the miners working dry shoal on the bottom of the river." The editor predicted that "barrels of gold will be taken from the riverbed by this novel method."

The article that I wrote for the Signal's successor, The Dahlonega Nugget, noted that two short handled shovels were found inside the bell when it was first pulled out of the river, but there was no sign of them when I was there in 1991. Of course, at that time I didn't know enough about the bell to look for them.

The Owens family offered to donate the diving bell to the Gold Museum in 1994, but after much deliberation and weighing of the costs involved, the Department of Natural Resources declined the offer.

When the Birch River Golfing Community purchased the property from Owens Farms in 1997, the diving bell went with it. Concerned about the deterioration of the artifact, Birch River personnel hired local metal worker Larry Lingerfelt to sandblast and put a coat of protective paint on the derelict object. He also repaired the tear made when it was pulled out of the river. After the bell was returned to Birch River, it was placed alongside a service road next to the maintenance area, where it was seldom seen and largely forgotten for nearly a decade except by service personnel. In 2006 the property, including the diving bell, was sold to the Reynolds Achasta Community.


Despite my fascination with this unusual object and what I learned about it in my subsequent research, the diving bell seemed like an "interesting curiosity," and I moved on to other subjects to research and write about. Thus I was quite surprised when I received an excited telephone call a number of years later (2007) from a former military diver named Walt Garlinghouse.

Walt had recently been told about the diving bell and gotten permission from Achasta to view it. "This thing is phenomenal!" he exclaimed. "I've never seen anything like it, and I've been sending out e-mails trying to find out when and where it was built. I've already heard back from Dr. James Delgado. He's the Director of INA (Institute of Nautical Archaeology), and he thinks this is the only surviving diving bell of this kind in the U.S. and maybe the world."

After seeing the photos that Walt sent him, Dr. Delgado sent Walt drawings of a similar bell patented in New York in 1858 by Benjamin Maillefert. Although Dr. Delgado was unable to come to Dahlonega to assess the bell personally, he sent his colleague, Mark K. Ragan, to come photograph and measure what Delgado described as "a unique, rare and highly significant piece of early American diving technology." Ragan, author of several treatises on Civil War era submersibles and a member of the Hunley archaeological team, presented his findings in a report entitled "The Civil War Era Chestatee River Diving Bell".

After receiving many interested inquiries about the bell attesting to the significance of the artifact, Achasta agreed to donate the bell to the City of Dahlonega to be put on public display. Managing Director Ron Larson suggested that Mayor Gary McCullough appoint an ad hoc committee to discuss ways and means to protect, preserve, and present the bell.

As Walt continued with his telephone calls and e-mails to let the outside world know about our unique artifact and I kept interviewing anyone I could find who knew anything about the bell, our efforts were greatly augmented by two skilled researchers who became very interested in the project in 2008 and continue to uncover new pieces of the puzzle.


Bill Waldrop, who lives near Richmond, Virginia, was "hooked" when he came across an on-line reference to a diving bell possibly designed by Benjamin Maillefert. Even after learning that the Dahlonega bell, although similar, cannot be connected with Maillefert's 1858 design, Bill put aside his own research about the submarine engineer to search for information about the man who used a diving bell in the Chestatee River---Philologus Hawkins Loud.

Chris Worick and I met at the Lumpkin County Library, where he was doing research about local gold mines. I invited him to come to the Historical Society meetings, and he has been an active member ever since, as well as co-chair and chair of the Chestatee River Diving Bell committee. Chris has not only uncovered much additional information about the artifact; he has also inspected every inch of the bell, inside and out, and located faint, previously unnoticed foundry markings revealing that the iron plates were cast in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.

Evidence uncovered by Chris and Bill suggested that our diving bell, while probably an adaptation of Maillefert's 1858 submersible design, had some notable differences. Bill noticed a newspaper item describing the Chestatee diving bell as using sand for ballast, whereas he knew that Maillefert's design employed water.

Chris located a letter written from Lumpkin County to the editor of a California newspaper and later reprinted in the June 16, 1876 Dahlonega Mountain Signal, which had this to say:

"I have seen something new in the way of mining in operation here. It is a monster boat on the Chestatee river. It works by steam and has a large iron caisson, which is lowered into the water. The air soon forces the water all out, and then men go to work in the river-bed and shovel the gravel to large pumps, which take it up to the sluice boxes, water for which is raised at the same time. It is a great curiosity, and a perfect success. This you have not in California; it is a Georgia invention...."

Another piece of evidence that the Chestatee diving bell might not be a Maillefert bell was Bill's discovery of a patent applied for by Philologus H. Loud and received February 20, 1883. It was for what the inventor called a "Floating Caisson" and showed a miner at work inside a bell attached by entry tube to a flat boat floating above. The similarity between this later device and Loud's earlier boat and bell used in the Chestatee River was unmistakable. There is no evidence that this more advanced bell was ever built.

Joe Beglan, a descendant of P. H. Loud who lives in Maryland, learned about the diving bell project and began sharing his research for a book he is writing about the Loud family. It was discovered that the Loud Mine, originally in Habersham, later in Lumpkin (created in 1832), and finally in White County (created in 1857) was named for or by P. H. Loud's father, John Loud, who opened the mine early in the Georgia gold rush.

State Archaeologist David Crass and State Underwater Archaeologist Chris McCabe came to Dahlonega in 2009 to spend a day doing an extensive study of the bell to record its features and assess its condition. David also met with the Diving Bell Committee and later wrote a report on the bell for DNR's website.

Joe Porter, editor of Wreck Diving magazine, heard about the Chestatee diving bell from Walt Garlinghouse and drove to Dahlonega to see and photograph it for himself. The 10-page article he published entitled, "When Georgia Miners Went Diving for Gold in the Chestatee River," generated considerable interest nationally and even worldwide. In addition to illustrating the article with numerous photographs, Editor Porter commissioned an artist to create a digital picture of the underwater bell, showing two miners working inside with shovels.

Meanwhile, Chris had come up with some interesting new information about the boat to which the diving bell had been attached. An item originally submitted by the Gainesville Little Watchman and reprinted by the Atlanta Constitution on September 7, 1875 was written by "M.S.," believed to be Matthew Stephenson, a geologist and experienced mining superintendent as well as assayer of the Dahlonega Branch Mint 1850-53:

"We yesterday dined with Maj. Loud at the falls of the Chestatee river near Dahlonega, where he is building a steam boat of 30 horse power to work the bed of the river, which is rich in gold, by a newly discovered process, and as I rode on the first steam craft ever built, I christened it the Chestatee."

Chris also discovered the following entry in the November 16, 1875 issue of the Columbus Enquirer: "The Dahlonega Signal announces the result of the first prospecting survey of the bed of the Chestatee River, by means of the apparatus of the Loud Mining Company. Mr. Loud was the first one who went down in the caisson or diving bell, and it is said that prospects of abundance of gold was so good that he never slept any that night. We learn that this gentleman intends erecting two other boats if the one he now has is successful.'"


Unfortunately, Loud's efforts and expectations apparently never came to fruition due to adverse weather---and perhaps a more sinister cause. The Chestatee River is known for the "freshets" that periodically turn it into a raging torrent, and there was so much rain the winter of 1875-76 that numerous flash floods made the river run high over its banks.

On October 20, 1876, the Mountain Signal prefaced an extended article entitled, "The Sinking of the Loud Boat" with the following words:

"It seems that this institution was brought forth under the rising of an unlucky star...Last winter it was only by unremitting vigilance and effort that she was kept from being stove to pieces on the shoals, and the last chapter of her history to this time is as follows:

The article went on to relate how Col. Loud had returned to the family's home in Gainesville, leaving his two sons Charles and Phi to take care of the boat and machinery. They accompanied their father as far as Capt. Early's house, not anticipating any danger in leaving the boat alone.

When Charles returned, he discovered that the outer gunwale of the boat was "at least two feet under water, and the boat badly carried. Her condition would have been almost beyond remedy, as the water is quite deep here, had it not been that she was hugged jam against the bank, and being held by the stout hawsers, she could not sink but a few inches on that side.

"No work had been done on her since last week, and certainly nothing while they were there...to cause a leak, and the only theory that seems reasonable is, that some wretch, having revenge in his heart for some fancied grievance, finding the boat unprotected and the tools handy for his hellish work, opened the hatch and bored a hole in her bottom; for the hatch was swimming when Charles returned....Capt. Early informs us that Col. Loud has returned and is hard at work righting her."

On the same page Chris found a separate 3-line item noting that "The Loud boat operation, has been abandoned, the products derived from it not being equal to the labor expended." The following issues of the Signal are missing, so it is not known if further information was reported about the fate of the Loud boat.


As our attention was increasingly drawn to the diving bell boat, I again contacted James Jones (the former overseer for Owens Farms who had hauled the bell out of the river in 1981). He agreed to come to Achasta and show us the exact location of the sunken boat. Ron Larson provided golf carts to convey James and Chris and me through the golf course to an area we believed to be the general vicinity of the boat's location. James immediately pointed to a place directly opposite an outcropping of rocks.

"It's right there," he informed us. "I remember sitting on the rocks to fish and wondering what that pipe was sticking up out of the water. I figured it must be a boiler of some kind, but I didn't have any idea what it might be attached to---not 'til I went and got my dozer and pulled it out of the river."

Now we knew where the boat was located, but it was buried in sand in such a deep hole that it would require a professional diver with a dredge to uncover it. The first dive was made on May 22, 2010 by Chip Wright, a historical planner with the Georgia Mountain Regional Commission (GMRC) who is also a qualified diver and nautical archaeologist. His search to find the boat was hampered by the root ball of a large tree that had snagged in the river. Despite limited visibility, he was able to take the first underwater photographs of the boat. However, a large portion of the vessel was buried under a river bank which had apparently collapsed on top of it, making it impossible to determine the craft's dimensions.

The next diver was our fellow researcher, Bill Waldrop, who traveled from Virginia with his diving gear in tow and spent three days in the Chestatee River in September of 2011. He spent the first day using an underwater chain saw and lift bags to eliminate the root ball lying on top of the boat deck. With the bow of the ship finally exposed, gears and machinery attached to the deck were revealed once the sand was dredged away. Bill reported that the boat had come to rest at a sharp slant, which jibes with the newspaper report of its sinking. Bill's magnetometer picked up two strong signals within 20 feet of the boat, but whatever metal they indicated was buried too deep to uncover.

Thanks to Walt Garlinghouse's contacts, Stephen Collins and Buck Buchanan from The Dive Shop on McEver Road in Gainesville offered their services to swim over the exposed portion of the boat and film it. Their 3 1/2-minute video is available on You Tube under "1875 mining boat."

Next to dive on the Loud boat was State Underwater Archaeologist, Chris McCabe, along with his assistant Stephen Dilk, who, after dredging away a lot of sand, were able to do an in depth survey and determine the exact dimensions of the boat to be 17' x 50' x 3'. They also reported that the boat has a flat bottom and a well in the center of the deck through which the bell was raised and lowered. McCabe has written an article describing the results of their survey for the DNR monthly publication, Preservation Post, which can be viewed on the Georgia DNR Historic Preservation Division HPD website.

A question we are often asked is whether or not there are plans to raise the boat from its watery grave. The answer to that is a resounding NO! Where on earth would we put a 17' x 50' foot vessel? Bill Waldrop reported that the wood of the boat and the metal shafting and gears are in "amazing condition" but only because they have been preserved by the water and sand on the river bottom. They would quickly deteriorate if exposed to the air.


P. H. Loud wasn't the only one who had to deal with dilemmas involving the Chestatee River Diving Bell. The Diving Bell committee spent months looking for a suitable site where the artifact could be placed, but only one place met all the criteria: Hancock Park, where it would be easily accessible to visitors. In December of 2009, the Dahlonega City Council voted to allow placement of the artifact on the northeast corner of the popular city park, located a short block from the Public Square.

With a site determined, the biggest problem confronting the Diving Bell Committee was finding funds needed to refurbish the once-again deteriorating artifact and put it on display for public viewing. Given the state of the economy, the situation looked bleak. We had no money and no prospects. Fortunately,, that was about to change.

In January of 2010, Jim Delgado offered to make the diving bell an INA (Institute of Nautical Archaeology) archaeological project, using their 501(c)3 status to process donations and dispersion funds. Since INA is located in Texas, however, this did not prove to be a practical arrangement.

In March the Lumpkin County Historical Society (a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, offered to make the Chestatee River Diving Bell a formal LCHS historical preservation project, agreeing to serve as the local tax-receipting agency of record for accepting donations and making disbursements on behalf of the project. The Society also pledged $5,000 in "seed money."

In April several organizations came together to formalize the Diving Bell Project by signing a Memorandum of Agreement. These included Achasta, the City of Dahlonega, Institute of Nautical Archaeology, Lumpkin County Historical Society, and the Chestatee River Diving Bell Committee.

Although the Chestatee River Diving Bell project was now well organized and able to accept tax exempt donations, no funds were available . Meanwhile, the bell, despite being raised off the ground and covered with a tarpaulin by Achasta personnel, continued to deteriorate. Initial investigations indicated that it was going to take a lot of money to restore the artifact and even more to display it in Hancock Park.

"Talk to Bill Hardman and get his advice about doing a fundraiser," I was advised. I soon learned why. Bill (retired founder of the Southeast Tourism Society) and his wife Helen immediately became excited about the Diving Bell Project and didn't stop with advice. They soon began planning a major fundraising event. When their friends Mike and Lynn Cottrell heard about the diving bell project, they generously offered to host the event at their Circle C Cottrell Ranch. When they learned that the diving bell was badly in need of an overhaul, they agreed to sponsor the restoration, which would be done by skilled workmen at Cottrell, Inc. in Gainesville.

On June 10, I along with other members of the diving bell committee watched with excitement as a huge crane hoisted the bell high into the air and then onto the back of a flatbed truck. At the Cottrell plant, the bell was lightly sandblasted and repainted in the conservation lab established there by Chip Wright. Under his direction Cottrell workmen also fabricated new portholes and a new light-weight entry tube/air lock that were exact replicas of the originals. The original entry tube would be put on display so that its narrow interior could be viewed along with its hatches and valves.

Over 500 people gathered at the Cottrell Ranch on July 31, 2010 for the grand unveiling of the newly restored Chestatee River Diving Bell. Over $40,000 had been raised! As generous as the community was in donating to the project, more funding was necessary to design and create a pavilion where the bell could be showcased and interpreted in Hancock Park. Helen Hardman suggested applying for an Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) matching grant, and she joined with GMRC's Dave Sargent in writing the grant proposal.

In the meantime several design proposals for a pavilion to house the bell were presented for consideration. The Diving Bell committee ultimately decided on Atlanta architect Richard Owens's conceptual design, which calls for the use of natural materials to create the atmosphere of a river setting---one that he remembers well from spending time on the Chestatee when his family owned the surrounding property. The last major hurdle was cleared in August of 2011 when word came that the ARC grant had been approved and construction could begin. The City of Dahlonega assumed responsibility for the Diving Bell Project and began making arrangements with Richard Owens to implement his design for the pavilion. The project was advertised, and bids were accepted beginning in February of 2012. The ribbon-cutting is scheduled to take place in October a week prior to Dahlonega's annual Gold Rush Days festival. After five years of preparation for this event, it's going to be a grand celebration!

Posted 5 April 2012.