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Restored diving bell makes its way back to Dahlonega
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Kelly Westmoreland takes some measurements before unloading the refurbished diving bell Friday at a barn at Cottrell Circle C Ranch. The bell, which was once used to find gold at the bottom of the Chestatee River, was recently restored in Gainesville and will be displayed in Hancock Park in Dahlonega. - photo by Tom Reed

Unveiling of the Chestatee River diving bell
What: Fundraiser featuring food and entertainment to build pavilion in Hancock Park in Dahlonega
When: 6 p.m. July 31
Where: Barn C at Cottrell Circle C Ranch, Porter Springs Road, Dahlonega
How much: $40 per person, $320 for table of eight, $400 for table of 10
Contact: Helen Hardman at 706-892-8315 or fincher1@windstrem.net; Lynn Cottrell at 770-519-4011 or lynncottrell@aol.com

A piece of Civil War history is taking the same journey it traveled more than a century ago.

A diving bell — the only one of its kind left — was located in the Chestatee River in 1983 and finally received a makeover in Gainesville this summer.

The bell, which was used to find gold on the bottom of the river, was first used in New Orleans to scan the Mississippi River. When inventor and entrepreneur Philologus Loud brought the bell to Georgia in 1875, it traveled by rail and stopped in Gainesville before moving to Dahlonega by a Southern Express wagon.

“It’s a very, very significant piece of technology,” said Walt Garlinghouse, a Gainesville resident who has worked with Dahlonega historians Anne Amerson and Chris Worrick to research the object. “It represents a time when American inventors were not willing to accept the limits of nature. ... This type of technology vanished and was later replaced.”

The bell, 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 pressurized air-lock design to turning a glass upside down in water, which creates a pocket of air at the top.

The bell and ship containing it sank in the Chestatee River in 1876 due to sabotage, Amerson said. The Chestatee bell stayed under water until 1983 when local residents found 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 property owner Achasta until June 10.

Then, the renovation process began. Mike Cottrell offered his Gainesville metal shop and employees to take on the task, and Chip Wright, the diving bell project manager and preservation planner for the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission, helped the team measure the bell and assess damage.

“I took steps to stabilize the bell with a team of Cottrell employees that became the official conservation team,” he said. “Then restoration began, which involved making repairs to the bell primarily associated with the 2000-2003 restoration effort. The big highlight was the re-creation of the air lock system and cylinder to be mounted on top, and reproduction of the port holes.”

Using technology in the Cottrell shop, the team was able to measure the portholes to almost exactly match the originals.

“Our biggest discovery was finding several pieces of the bell had dropped into the ballast tanks, and recovery of those items helped us to reproduce the missing pieces,” he said. “The biggest challenge was reproducing the portholes to the nth degree, but the most impressive part is the cylinder itself and how every rivet matches the original rivet.”

The bell will be unveiled July 31 at Barn C at the Cottrell Circle C Ranch in Dahlonega as part of a fundraiser to build a pavilion in Hancock Park, just a block off the downtown Dahlonega square. The pavilion, estimated to cost about $125,000, will feature a raised platform for the bell and an iron fence to protect the bell.

“The city wants it to be a pedestrian-friendly space with the use of natural materials, such as stone found along the Chestatee River, to decorate it,” Wright said. “The city has also agreed to put a camera monitoring system on the bell to thwart vandalism.”

Wright is now receiving phone calls from research professionals around the world who are interested in the bell. Though museums and exhibits have expressed interest in displaying the bell, Wright said he is “adamant it needs to stay in Dahlonega.”

“The perfect environment would be a climate-controlled area, nicely lit and with a dramatic display, but this is the next best thing,” he said. “It would be at home in the Smithsonian or any Naval museum around the country, but it’s also at home in Lumpkin County and North Georgia for people to interpret it in the context it was used in.”

Dahlonega officials also plan to apply for grants to improve Hancock Park and continue research on the bell and its ship, which still sits at the bottom of Chestatee River.

“The project isn’t going to stop here,” Wright said. “We’re going to be talking about it for a long time.”

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