Sometimes life can surprise us by placing us in exactly the right place at the right time. The morning of July 4th this year I decided to drive over to Dahlonega and take a look at the Chestatee River Diving Bell. Walking around Hancock Park in Dahlonega to view this restored submersible craft and taking photographs for this article I somehow found myself in conversation with a couple. Henry Preston Wilkerson Jr., and his wife were not just tourists in Dahlonega for the holiday, in fact Henry was in a photo on one of the displays.
PHOTO OF HENRY PRESTON WILKERSON JR. & HIS WIFE.
Henry and his wife generously took time to explain to me the part he had played in rescuing and restoring this amazing part of North Georgia history. In 1981 Henry Wilkerson Jr. and John Weingard, described as local gold prospectors on the display board, worked in cooperation with the landowner to lift the bell from the bed of the river. For years people had wondered what the iron cylinder protruding from the Chestatee River belonged to. It was thought to be the smokestack of an old mining ship but the top of the supposed smokestack was sealed. It was not until the bell was lifted from the river bed that they realized the sealed tube was indeed an airlock cylinder attached to the diving bell. The 1981 photograph on the display board shows Wilkerson and Weingard with short-handled shovels found in the diving bell.
Discovery to Restoration Display Board
In 1833 articles in the Auraria, Georgia newspaper, “The Western Herald”, mention a boat being launched in the Chestatee River with a machine for “raising” grit from the bed of the river. So, who came up with this idea of mining gold from the river using a diving bell? Apparently it was a Judge Jacob Peck from Tennessee, described as a man of science and ingenuity. There is no further recorded information about the 1833 attempt to mine gold from the river.
However, in 1875 Philologous Hawkins Loud began building a steam powered “Monster Boat”. The 50 x 17 foot Chestatee was built to raise and lower the diving bell from a well in the center of the ship’s deck. The diving bell was 14 feet long and six feet wide and eight feet tall, with an airlock eight feet tall. Mr. Loud was the first to descend in the diving bell to ensure that everything was in working order.
PHOTO OF ARTIST’S RENDERING OF THE CHESTATEE DIVING BELL
It is not known if the Chestatee River Diving Bell ever successfully mined much gold. During the winter of 1875-1876 shortly after the Bell was put into operation, flooding occurred closing mining operations along Yahoola Creek. There were attempts to repair the boat but the boat had been idle too long. The miners had not been getting paid and there was no evidence of gold being mined by the bell.
PHOTO OF RESTORED DIVING BELL IN HANCOCK PARK DAHLONEGA
In October 1876 the diving bell was intentionally and mysteriously sunk. The bell lay abandoned and forgotten on the sands of the Chestatee river bed for over 125 years until by tremendous effort on the part of the Chestatee River Diving Bell Fund Raising Committee, enough funds were raised to preserve the bell for future generations.