The Chestatee River Diving Bell
by Christopher Worick and Manuel B. Carvalho ©
The Diving Bell and boat made their appearance in September of 1875. Within a little over a year the dreams of the Loud Mining Company would end as their boat disappeared under mysterious circumstances beneath the river depths taking the diving bell with it on its final descent. The only visible reminder was the airlock protruding from the river, like a silent sentry eternally keeping watch. [Photo at right courtesy of Charles Satterfield.]
Unlike a submarine, which is self contained and moves under its own propulsion, the Diving Bell is an open-bottomed pressurized submersible which is tethered to a surface vessel. Raised and lowered through a well in the boat this diving bell was built specifically to mine for gold at the bottom of the Chestatee River.
For over a century the secrets of the Diving Bell were held beneath the murky waters of the Chestatee River. On October 18, 1876, the Diving Bell and its boat sank under mysterious circumstances. While ending the short career of the only manned submersible gold mining operation in Georgia, it did not end the mystery of how it sank or where it came from.
Time moves on and memories fade.
Decades later local residents familiar with the strange tube in the river thought it was a stack from an old steam boat but couldn't understand why it was sealed up at the top. In 1981 two recreational gold prospectors, John Winegard and Henry Preston Wilkerson, believed that they might find gold around the sunken boat. Diving around the tube they began to clear away decades of sand and debris. To their amazement they discovered that what was buried in the river was not only a mining boat but also a diving bell along with it! With the help of James Jones, the Owens' Farm foreman, and some of the local workers and three changes in heavy machinery, they were able to free the diving bell from its watery grave. After 105 years, the Diving Bell was finally able to have its story unfold.
After removing the river debris which had accumulated inside the bell, nothing was found of any real value. A few tools and the decayed remains of other wooden and metallic artifacts were all that were found. Even dredging around the sunken boat did not yield any significant discoveries aside from exposing the curious design of the 50 foot long vessel. With nothing of value uncovered the diving bell became just a curiosity for anyone passing by along the river.
The diving bell was now at the mercy of not only the elements but also souvenir hunters. With time the rusting hulk was robbed of its equipment and machinery that lay upon the riverbank. Even parts which were bolted to the submersible were pilfered by treasure hunters and curiosity seekers. Every item taken from the diving bell made it more difficult to determine how it actually operated.
The Bell was a point of interest to many over the years and particularly so to local author Anne Amerson [seen at right, ca. 1991, about a decade after the bell was pulled from the river] who did extensive research for her published articles in the North Georgia Journal [Winter 1989 and May 2002], in the Dahlonega Nugget [3B, 3/26/1992], in her I Remember Dahlonega vol. 2 and 4 [Chestatee Publications, 1997] book series and in Georgia Backroads magazine [Autumn 2008]. In 1995, the Owens family who owned the property on which the bell was located wanted to donate the craft to the Dahlonega Gold Museum. Although the idea did find support among the local population, the project was ultimately turned down by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources [DNR]. Due to the size of the Bell the DNR felt that it would mar the appearance of the museum and the project languished.
The Bell continued to remain on the side of the river until 2003. By this time Birch River, LLC had purchased the property and converted the land into a gated community and golf course. Their plan was to make the diving bell the centerpiece of a children's playground rather than letting it continue to rust. Local metalworker, Larry Lingerfelt was asked by Birch River to repair and repaint the artifact. However, recognizing that this plan wasn't the best idea the semi-restored bell was moved to the maintenance access road and forgotten once again.
In the Spring of 2007, two visiting divers heard the story about the diving bell and became interested in seeing it for themselves. Upon viewing the craft, they realized that this was something very old and unusual. They began emailing and made inquiries in Historical Diver Magazine requesting anyone from the nautical community with information about the bell to contact them.
One lucky phone call to the Smithsonian Institution was referred to Wendy Coble at the archives of the US Navy Shipyard. Wendy then contacted Dr. James Delgado of the Institute of Nautical Archaeology. Dr. Delgado took an interest in the story and began researching the diving bell, calling it a "unique, rare and highly significant" example of "early American diving technology" that is "nationally significant" based on photos taken of the submersible. After searching patents and old illustrations of early diving bell, Delgado theorized this diving bell appeared to bear the hallmarks of an 1858 patented design created by Benjamin Maillefert of Astoria, New York.
With this intriguing clue, local researchers began to find more information about the origins of the diving bell from local records and newspaper articles.
In 2009, a diving bell committee was formed which was comprised of local residents with the main goal of placing this historic artifact on permanent display.
In the first part of 2010 several organizations came to together to formalize this project. Namely,
Achasta (A Reynolds Signature Community) and new owner of the golfing community agreed to donate the Chestatee River Diving Bell to the City of Dahlonega.
The City accepted ownership of the Bell and agreed to its preservation and display in Hancock Park.
The Institute of Nautical Archaeology took on the Bell as a formal archaeological project and agreed to provide guidance and assistance in documenting, conserving, preserving, and interpreting the bell.
The Lumpkin County Historical Society, Inc., a 501(c)3 not-for-profit organization, agreed to make the Chestatee River Diving Bell a formal historical preservation project and to serve as the tax-receipting agency for accepting donations and making disbursements on behalf of the project. The Society provided $5,000 seed money for the project.
The Chestatee River Diving Bell Committee, an ad hoc citizens’ group, agreed to assist in the process of documentation, conservation, preservation, interpretation and display of the bell and to meet as necessary to direct the project.
In 2010 the Diving Bell garnered national attention when Joe Porter published an article about it, in issue 20 of Wreck Diving magazine. With the necessary funds still lacking to properly restore the diving bell it looked as though the project might once again fail. Through the efforts of Bill and Helen Hardman and Mike and Lynn Cottrell a fund raising committee was started. Mike Cottrell volunteered to use his Gainesville facility to completely refurbish and repaint the diving bell. On July 31st, 2010 at the Cottrell Ranch, with over 500 people in attendance, the fully restored Chestatee River Diving Bell made its reappearance to the public. The fund raiser coupled with a grant garnered almost one hundred thousand dollars to complete the project of displaying this historical artifact.
A plaza designed by architect Richard Owens was completed in November 2012 to house the Diving Bell on public display in Dahlonega’s Hancock Park where this unique and only example of this type of submersible craft known to exist in the United States will once again cause wonder as it did when its journey first began. The dedication ceremony for the plaza was held on 30 Nov. 2012. The video below provides a brief overview of that ceremony.
The purpose of this site is to serve as the official authoritative fact based source of information for the Chestatee River Diving Bell and the Diving Bell Boat which carried it. Here, the details of its history are factually documented. Although a significant amount of information is now known about the purposes of this unusual artifact, much still remains a mystery.
Added video of dedication ceremony on 16 Feb 2013.
Changed date of Satterfield airlock photo from 1961 to 1966 on 1 Feb 2013.
Added date for Anne Amerson's photo of ca. 1991 on 31 Jan 2013.
Modified for plaza opening on 14 Dec 2012.
Originally Posted 3 April 2012.
Plaza design is by Richard Owens, bell artistic concept is by Chris O'Reilly.