Richard Owens Making Home for Chestatee River Diving Bell

A recent project that was an interesting challenge for us was to design a plaza for the Dahlonega Diving Bell. Dating back to the post-Civil War era, the iron bell was lowered into the Chestatee River so that prospectors could scour the river bottom for gold.

Working on the same principle that a glass thrust upside down into a bucket will trap the air inside, the 17-foot bell would be hauled out by boat and lowered. Men would crawl through the hatch at the top of the bell into a small airlock. Securing the top hatch, the prospectors opened the bottom hatch that allowed them to walk on the riverbed and, it was hoped, pick up nuggets.

The bell was originally used along the Mississippi River. It was shipped to Dahlonega by an entrepreneur with the euphonious name of Philologus Loud.

“But it wasn’t in the river long – it sank in the 1870s. They say his son sabotaged the boat to end what he thought was a wasteful use of the family fortune,” Owens said.

Such bells were not uncommon in the U.S. port cities such as New Orleans and Savannah, but as the country moved into the 20th century, they became outmoded. The last ones disappeared in the scrap metal drives of World War II. Owens said the Dahlonega bell may be the only one left.

Owens’ charge from the Georgia Mountains Regional Commission was to design a suitable outdoor space in Dahlonega’s Hancock Park near City Hall. It will sit under a canopy that has gables that allow visitors to see the whole bell as they walk up to it.

“I wanted the design to reflect the bell’s design and use,” Owens said. “Plantings around the bell will reflect native plants of the river. The plaza itself resembles the bed of the river.”

When he begins to design, Owens said he knows where he is headed when he starts. But at some point, the design begins to tell him what it needs.

“It’s like writing characters in a book,” he said. “At some point, they take charge of their actions and tell the author. And when we get it right, we bring joy and beauty into people’s lives.”

Taken from an interview with Hatcher Hurd of the North Fulton Herald

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