Jan09

"What the heck is that thing?" The Strange Story of the Chestatee River Diving Bell

by Chris Worick Categories // History & Heritage

One block north of the Dahlonega Public Square lies Hancock Park.  Known for the seasonal farmers market, free concerts, and First Friday movie events in the summer, Hancock Park also is home to one of Dahlonega's strangest gold mining attractions. Made of riveted boiler plate iron, this three ton submersible is something which definitely catches the eye and draws you in for a closer look.

The story of the Chestatee River Diving Bell begins in May of 1875. A Georgia entrepreneur named Philologus Hawkins (P.H.) Loud, arrived in Dahlonega with some associates from New York, to inspect the various mining operations along the river. Their intent was to determine the feasibility of mining the riverbed for gold using a diving bell.

Typically found around seaports and harbors, diving bells had been in use for centuries. In its simplest form, a diving bell is nothing more than an open bottom barrel or iron box, which when lowered into the water, forces air upward and traps it inside. This creates a pocket of breathable air which allows workmen inside the diving bell to operate underwater for a limited period of time. Later versions used steam powered air compressors to pump fresh air in continuously.

Loud and his partners concluded that such an undertaking was not only possible, but also had the potential to be very lucrative. Within a few months, Mr. Loud had convinced enough men to finance his river operation. In September work began on construction of the boat which would carry the diving bell up and down the river.

The diving bell or floating caisson as some referred to it, was another matter. Since no one had ever attempted to mine for gold on a riverbed with a submersible before, the diving bell had to be specially made to order. Shipped by rail from the Pottstown Iron Company in Pennsylvania, the bell was assembled and loaded aboard the ship once it arrived at the staging area on the Chestatee River.

Favorable newspaper articles from October of 1875, reflect that the boat with diving bell aboard were being tested to work out any issues with the machinery.

However, even the best laid plans often result in failure. During the winter of 1875-76, incessant rain plagued Loud's river operation. As the river continued to rise due to heavy rainfall, the current also became dangerous. Sometime in February of 1876, the boat and diving bell broke free of their moorings, and were almost tore to pieces on the rocks as the boat went on a wild ride down the flooded Chestatee.

From what random news articles are available, it would seem that the boat, diving bell or combination of both, sustained some damage which required extensive repairs. Keeping in mind that this was a one of a kind operation, specialty repair parts or mechanics had to be called in. With the mining operation at a standstill, Loud was losing money and his creditors were becoming impatient.

In June of 1876, the Dahlonega Mountain Signal announced that a lien against the company had been issued and the sale of the boat and all related machinery would take place on the courthouse steps on July 4th. With some legal manuvering, Loud was somehow able to retain possession of the boat despite the growing debt.

The strange twist in the story is what happens next. In October 1876, the Signal reported the sinking of the Loud Boat. No one could say for sure how the boat with diving bell on board came to sink on its own on a clear day. Was it sabotage or perhaps a floating log punctured a hole below the waterline?
As there were no witnesses to the sinking, a flurry of gossip surrounded the mysterious circumstances. No one was ever charged and Loud was only able to recover some of the steam engines and machinery on the deck. The boat and diving bell could not be recovered and were abandoned to the sands of time.

It wasn't until 1981 that the diving bell was pulled from the river, and a new chapter to restore it began. You can read more about the remarkable story of the 1875 Chestatee River Diving Bell when you visit Dahlonega. The restored Diving Bell is on display in Hancock Park under a pavilion with interpretive signs. It is open to the public 24 hours a day, and there is no admission.

We welcome you to learn more about this one of a kind artifact from Lumpkin County's rich gold mining past.

About the Author

Chris Worick

Chris Worick

Chris Worick has lived in Dahlonega since 2001 and spends much of his free time researching the history of Lumpkin County and the 1829 Gold Rush. Chris is an active member of the Lumpkin County Historical Society and regularly writes articles of historical interest for the Dahlonega Nugget.

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Dahlonega-Lumpkin County Chamber & Visitors Bureau  |  13 South Park Street  |  Dahlonega, GA 30533  |  (706) 864-3711 or (800) 231-5543