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Mystery surrounds restored Chestatee River diving bell

19th century artifact is prepped to go on display in Dahlonega

POSTED: January 15, 2012 1:30 a.m.
/For The Times

The refurbished diving bell awaits its new home in Dahlonega.

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 It’s been a long journey, but a diving bell is finally in the homestretch of its transformation from river junk to historic treasure.

For more than 100 years, it lay mostly hidden beneath the murky waters of the Chestatee River in Lumpkin County.

 

The only clue to its existence was what appeared to be a smokestack poking out above the water’s surface.

Local residents speculated that it was the remains of an old steamboat and ignored it.

In the early 1980s, a group of residents got together and finally decided to remove the object from the water.

After unloading it on the river bank and doing a little research, they realized the Chestatee had been holding a treasure more rare than the gold nuggets that put the town on the map in the 1800s. The odd hunk of metal turned out to be a diving bell dating back to 1875.

Now the city of Dahlonega is closer to putting that historic relic on display in a downtown park later this year.

Businessman P.H. Loud brought the diving bell to Dahlonega to use in his gold mining venture. The airtight "bell" was lowered from Loud’s steamboat, The Chestatee, and used as an underwater workstation for divers searching for gold on the river bed.

The bell allowed the divers to remain underwater for longer periods of time.

The object is historically significant because it marks the first time that a diving bell was used to mine gold in North Georgia. It’s thought to be the only surviving Civil War-era vessel of this type.

"Chip Wright, who was involved with project during the restoration process, pointed out to me that the only reason the bell still exists is because it was in the river and left alone," said Chris Worick, a Dahlonega historian who has spent the last several years tracing the bell’s roots.

"During the world wars, they had scrap metal drives to make supplies for the military. If the diving bell hadn’t been in the river, it would’ve very likely been melted down and turned into metal for airplanes."

The road to restoring the diving bell and uncovering it’s history has been a long one, but local researchers are proud to say they’re gaining ground.

"We’ve made some very significant progress," Worick said.

Though the diving bell was pulled from the river in 1983, official restoration work didn’t begin until 2010, when the owners of the property where the object was found donated it to Dahlonega.

The bell was then placed in the care of Mike Cottrell of Gainesville for restoring.

That process was completed in summer 2010, but the bell has sat in storage since. The city was trying to raise funds needed to construct a protective pavilion to display it in Hancock Park near downtown.

"The big thing was requesting a matching federal grant. We finally got approval, so the next step is finalizing the architectural design of the pavilion," Worick said.

"We hope to start taking bids on the project at the end of this month. There’s a three-to-four month expected construction timeline, so we could be looking at having it completed between April and June."

Seeking the origins

During the wait, Worick and the other members of the Chestatee River Diving Bell Committee had the opportunity to get a closer look at the bell for clues of its origins.

One discovery was foundry marks indicating that the bell’s pieces were made by the Pottstown Iron Co. in Indiana.

"That doesn’t mean the bell was manufactured there. We think like a lot of other things, it was shipped down here as a kit," Worick said.

"That would explain why the plates were marked the way they were. The foundry marks were on one side, but on the opposite side, we found markings in a numbered sequence so that someone would know how to put them together.

"We don’t know who might’ve put them together though. That’s been a big question."

The writing on the bell also confirmed the group’s estimations about how the pieces were shipped by train.

"On one side, it says, ‘Shipped via CCD Line Gainesville, Georgia,’" Worick said.

"We knew Gainesville had to be the final destination, because even today, that’s the closest rail line to Dahlonega. As best we can tell CCD stands for the Carolina Central Dispatch line that originates in Wilmington, N.C."

Artifacts from the diving bell are on display at the Dahlonega Gold Museum Historic Site.

"The response has been pretty good," said Julia Autry, gold museum interpretive ranger.

"We’ve had a lot of people come in and ask questions about (the diving bell). The general public seems to be very curious about it."

Fate of the Chestatee

There’s a good reason behind the curiosity. One being the fact that the bell came to rest on the bottom of the Chestatee River after it mysteriously sank on Oct. 21, 1876.

Over the summer, the diving bell researchers decided to get to know the steamboat Chestatee, still submerged in the river, a little better.

"We spent a lot of time working with people who were doing some dredging to remove sediment from the deck of the boat," Worick said.

"When they found the Chestatee in 1983, the bell was still embedded in the boat and the boat was still in the same place as when it sunk.

"Even with the work that was done over the summer, the deck is covered again. The majority of the boat on the upstream side is under 3 feet of sediment. We’re going to try to clear it again in the spring so that we can get some good pictures of it for documentation."

The group was able to get accurate measurements of the boat, which is 50 feet long, 17 feet wide and 3 feet tall with a flat bottom.

One thing they haven’t been able to determine is who or what sank the Chestatee bell in the first place, laying the groundwork for this century-old mystery.

That piece of the puzzle likely will be left for a future generation to solve.

"Our ultimate goal is to get the diving bell on display in Hancock Park and to learn all we can about it," Worick said.

"This project has been a real oddity. You’d expect to find something like this in the ocean or on the Mississippi River, not in the middle of the North Georgia mountains."

 

 



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