New Orleans

Diving bell that aided gold miners being restored

By Carolyn Crist - The Times, Gainesville

A piece of history left Gainesville 135 years ago, but now it's back.

A diving bell - the only one of its kind still left from the Civil War - was unearthed from the Chestatee River decades ago and is finally being restored before it is displayed in downtown Dahlonega.

Usually found in port towns such as New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston, S.C., the diving bell was used in Dahlonega in 1875 to mine gold at the bottom of the river.

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

"It's a very rare piece of Civil War-era technology and the only one surviving of its kind," said Chip Wright, project manager and preservation planner for the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission. "This diving bell should never have been here. It's a good thing because that's why it has survived."

During the metal drives of World War I and World War II, bells of this type were melted down and used by the military, he said.

"This was lying on the bottom of the river and forgotten for all these years," he said. "You can read about these in books and see drawings, but this one is even more unique because it was customized to serve in a gold mining operation."

Philologus Loud, a Dahlonega inventor and entrepreneur, was doing business in New Orleans when he came up with the idea to use the bell to search for gold. The Benjamin Mallifert bell model, which includes two hatches and a pressurized air-lock system to create a pocket of air under water, was part of the salvaging ship named The Glide that scanned the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers.

Loud bought the bell when the ship was converted to a package steamer. The bell was loaded onto a rail car and reached the end of its rail trip in Gainesville, where it was loaded onto a Southern Express wagon and toted to Dahlonega.

In 1983, local gold miners decided to pull out the object that fishers had noticed.

"The gold miners knew what it was right way," said Anne Amerson, a Dahlonega historian who has studied the bell for years. "I didn't see it until 1990, and we still haven't figured out everything about it."