Now, more than 125 years after gold explorers placed the underwater capsule in the Chestatee River murk, townspeople in Dahlonega are about to put the ancient relic on display.
The submarine-like “diving bell,” which allowed gold miners to explore the riverbed, is set to be unveiled today in a park not far from Dahlonega’s town square. Plans call for it to remain there on display, as a sort of sculpture. They also see it as a valuable link to the gold mining history of the Dahlonega area, the scene of the first major gold rush in the United States.
“This little hunk of metal that was pulled out of the river is the only known surviving diving bell or caisson from that era,” said Robbie Niles, secretary of the Lumpkin County Historical Society.
“Our conjecture is that any others that might have been around were turned in for scrap metal during war efforts and so forth,” Niles said. “That’s what makes this unique. There aren’t any more. This is it. It’s sort of a link in the history of underwater technology.”
The river essentially prevented its demise, said Christopher Worick, who has been working on efforts to research and display the bell since 2008.
“Because it was sunken and had been forgotten about in the river, that’s actually what saved and preserved it,” he said.
Miners had experimented with diving bells in the western U.S., but the Chestatee River diving bell represents the only known attempt to extract gold with such technology east of the Mississippi River, Worick said.
The submersible device was attached to a gold mining boat and set up in the river in 1875. It was like a submarine, though it couldn’t move by its own power as a submarine would. The chamber, built for two men, had an eight-foot-high ceiling and a tube to deliver air. The device is just over 15 feet high, from the floor of the chamber to the top of the air tube, Worick said.
The diving bell was tethered to a 50-foot long gold mining boat, referred to in an old newspaper account as the Chestatee. It mysteriously sank in the Chestatee River on Oct. 18, 1876.
All of these events happened decades after the height of Dahlonega’s gold rush in 1829, though gold mining activity was still ongoing in the north Georgia hills and mountains surrounding Dahlonega at the time, Niles said. Gold had become more difficult to find in north Georgia, and many miners had moved west, to California.
“As far as the people who were able to just dip pans in streams and find gold, that had ended,” she said.
The diving bell was a new idea hatched by prospectors hoping to strike gold in the river. The idea was that miners would have a better chance of finding it if they had a way to work on the river floor.
From what Worick and others can gather from their research, the diving bell operation never made a profit because of mechanical breakdowns, weather conditions and other factors.
More than a century later, in 1981, gold prospectors John Winegard and Henry Preston Wilkerson set out to explore the site in the hopes that there might be gold near the sunken boat, according to records from the Lumpkin County Historical Society. While diving, they discovered the wreckage of the boat and the diving bell. Some tools and other artifacts were found, but no gold. The bell was pulled from the river floor, but remained on the bank of the river for the next several years.
Interest in the bell was rekindled in 2007, and the bell was eventually restored and recently moved to the park after a long process involving the historical society, the city, the Institute of Nautical Archaeology and volunteers who formed the Chestatee River Diving Bell Committee.
Even a gated golf course community played a pivotal role in the process to put the bell on display. The developers had purchased the property where the bell was, and planned to use the bell as the centerpiece of a children’s playground for the new neighborhood, according to the historical society’s records. Later, the developers agreed to donate the bell to the city.
Tourism leaders now hope it will give visitors another reason to visit Dahlonega, which already has gold