DAHLONEGA — Who said history can’t get a makeover?
A historic diving bell found in 1983 in the Chestatee River was restored this summer in Gainesville.
The bell was unveiled Saturday evening at Barn C at the Cottrell Circle C Ranch in Dahlonega as part of a fundraiser to build a pavilion in Hancock Park.
The pavilion, estimated to cost about $125,000, will feature a raised platform for the bell and an iron fence to protect it.
“This is the first bell of its kind found within the archeological record,” said Chip Wright, the diving bell project manager and preservation planner for the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission.
“Prior to finding this, there really was nothing out there except pictures and photographs of later versions of diving bell technology.”
The bell, which dates from the Civil War, measures 8 feet high, 15 feet long and almost 6 feet wide. It was first used to scan the Mississippi River in New Orleans and used to help divers breathe underwater while scanning river bottoms.
In 1875, Philologus Loud, an inventor and entrepreneur, brought the bell to Georgia, where it stopped in Gainesville before moving to Dahlonega by a Southern Express wagon.
The following year, a ship the bell was on sank in the Chestatee River and the bell stayed submerged until 1983, when it was discovered.
The bell sat beside the river until 2003 when arrangements were made to repair the top and paint it. After several years, a conservation team agreed to restore the bell by making repairs and re-creating an air-lock system and portholes.
At the beginning of this summer, Wright admits the bell was in “pretty rough” shape.
“It had been painted at one point between 2000 and 2003, but that had deteriorated quite a bit, and it started to rust again pretty bad,” Wright said.
“I really felt like if we didn’t do something at the beginning of the summer, it wouldn’t be too many more years after that before the bell would just be gone.”
Historian and researcher Chris Worick said last summer the DNR looked at the bell and noticed delamination, when layers of metal start to separate.
“It was imperative that we get it off the ground to try and protect it and get it restored as quickly as possible before it was gone forever,” Worick said.
But despite the initial worry that came from the condition the bell was in, Wright said there weren’t any setbacks during the restoration process.
“We found that the bell was structurally sound, and after we pinpointed the weak areas and fully documented the bell for engineering drawings, we started the restoration process,” Wright said. “We really made easy work out of it.”
Author and historian Anne Amerson, who has been working on the diving bell project off and on since the early 90s and nonstop for the past three years, said it has been an exciting project.
“I have been amazed from the responses; people all over the country are fascinated by it,” Amerson said.
The idea to reveal the bell along with a fundraiser event was sparked from Bill and Helen Hardman.
“We were at a point when the bell restoration was coming to a close, and we needed to get it on display at Hancock Park,” Wright said.
“So the fundraiser was the best way to really get the word out to the community and generate interest as well as the funds needed to do the job in the right way.”
Wright said he was breathing a sigh of relief Saturday as the conservation and restoration process was complete.
“Now it is time to get the bell on display,” Wright said. “I’m really hoping that this next phase will go as easy as the first.”
But even though the bell is restored, its story has only just begun. The next phase of the diving bell project will include more historic background research.
“There are still a lot of mysteries that we haven’t sold yet as far as exactly where the diving bell came from, who specifically made it, and exactly what year it was made,” Worick said.
Along with solving mysteries, a future goal is the excavation of the steamboat Chestatee, which still lies at the bottom of the Chestatee River.
“The shipwreck survey and assessment will give us additional clues, which will help us better understand the diving bell and how it was utilized during that period of time,” Wright said.