History mystery: Virginia man seeks clues on 19th century Williston inventor

One Virginia man's passion with maritime history, marine archaeology and genealogy has led him to Williston.

Bill Waldrop, of Chesterfield, Va., is a yeoman diver and history enthusiast. Interest in a diving bell, invented by Philologus Loud Sr., led Waldrop to Williston, where Loud spent his final years before dying there in 1905.

Waldrop is hoping some descendants of Loud are still in the Williston area and can provide him with further clues, stories or documents about the Williston inventor.

Already Waldrop has located and talked with Chester Dunbar Page Jr., the great-great-grandson of Loud. Page was born in 1929 in Williston and now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., he said.

Page had no knowledge that his great-great-grandfather had invented a diving bell, Waldrop said.

Waldrop located the documents from the U.S. Patent Office that gave a patent to Loud for both a floating caisson (diving bell) and a tractor engine Feb. 20, 1883. The documents list Loud as being from Williston.

Several years ago, Waldrop read about a diving bell that had been pulled from the Chestatee River in Georgia in 1983. The purpose of the bell was not known at the time, but seen as a local oddity. Later the bell was moved to the nearby Birch River golf course after the golf course bought the land on which the bell rested.

Years passed and Mark Ragan, an underwater specialist, inspected the Chestatee River diving bell and identified its purpose. Ragan worked as the historian for the C.S.S. Hunley, the Confederate submarine that was the first sub to sink an enemy ship in 1864.

Initially the diving bell was attributed to being an invention of Benjamin Maillefert, a pioneer underwater demolitions expert during the 1850s and 1860s.

Waldrop has done extensive research on Maillefert, accumulating 13 three-ring binder notebooks on the man.

"I started researching his life (Maillefert's) in 1975 or 1976 because I started diving," he said.

With his voluminous documentation on Maillefert, Waldrop thought it would make a great book, he said.

"No one ever looks at the salvagers," he said.

Waldrop's research on Maillefert led him to Loud.

"When you reach a dead-end on the person you are looking for, look at the people around them," he said. "When you go down the halls of history, you get sucked into side doors."

Maillefert had manufactured several diving bells, which were like large, inverted cups that could contain a man. Air hoses, valves and ballast helped keep a man and the contraption working underwater.

The Chestatee River bell was being used to salvage gold from the river bottom in 1875.

The project then was headed up by Philologus Loud Sr. Loud had been a captain in the Confederacy for the 10th Georgia Infantry Regiment.

Research has not indicated whether one of Maillefert's bells was shipped to the Chestatee River. Also, the design of this bell differed from what Maillefert created, Waldrop said.

Coupling these findings along with another fact led Waldrop to another conclusion.

That other fact was a letter sent to the Dahlonega (Ga.) Signal newspaper written by J.A. Burns in 1876 describing the diving bell in operation. The letter stated:

"I have seen something new in the way of mining in operation here. It is a monster boat on Chestatee river. It works by steam, and has a large iron  caisson, which is lowered into the water...  This you have not in California; it is a Georgia invention, and the best thing for working in deep water, I reckon, in the world."

"I realized that this was one of Loud's diving bells," he said. "I saw photos of the interior of the bell. The ballast method was different (from Maillefert's) and showed it was not a Maillefert invention."

Waldrop traced Loud to Gainesville, Ga. after the Civil War. The Chestatee River is north of the city. Before the war, Loud was a merchant dealing in ship masts on Staten Island, N.Y. sometime around 1859 or 1860, Waldrop said.

At this same time, Maillefert was a few miles away, testing his submersible bells at Hell's Gate on the East River. Waldrop would like to find out if the two men ever met, he said.

"What Maillefert was doing would have made the newspapers. My speculation is that he (Loud) saw it in person or in the newspaper and got the inspiration for his own bell. Who knows?" Waldrop said. "They were in the same general area."

The Loud family made its money in the piano business originally, but Philologus Loud Sr. turned his efforts toward underwater salvaging, especially for gold, he said.

"That was a bust for them and got them in bad financial straits," Waldrop said.

Waldrop is hoping someone in the Williston area may know more on Loud. Loud had a son, Philologus Loud Jr., and daughter, Sarah Loud Mixson. Loud's granddaughter, Bessie Loud Weathersbee, lived to be about 103. Page was born in Bessie L. Weathersbee's house. She was his aunt.

Loud, his wife Sarah Elizabeth, his daughter, granddaughter and other relatives are buried in the Williston cemetery, although Waldrop doesn't know where Philologus Loud Jr. spent his final days or was buried.

"You never know who has left what and where. When a family has lived in an area for years, you never know what might have been passed to the neighbors," Waldrop said.

Waldrop is exhilarated by his historical hunts.

"It makes it exciting to come home. You never know what you will have in your mailbox or your e-mailbox. It's like an ongoing detective investigation."

Waldrop's Chesterfield, Va. phone number is (804) 739-4487 and his e-mail is wwilliam1@comcast.net.