Sunken Civil War blockade runner has a story to tell NC divers and snorkelers

One of the best-preserved shipwrecks is visible off the coast of Kure Beach

KURE BEACH, N.C. — N.C. recreational divers and snorkelers can take a deep dive into the state’s history with an up-close look at the Condor, a civil war blockade runner that ran aground and sunk more than 150 years ago. The ship has a fascinating history that includes one of the Confederacy’s most notorious spies.The Condor ran aground on her maiden voyage to Wilmington on Oct. 1, 1864. She sank after launching out of Govan, Scotland, in June of that year, coming to rest just off the beach in Fort Fisher, located at the southern tip of Kure Beach.Today, the Condor is in 25 shallow feet of water, roughly 700 yards off the beach in front of the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher. The ship herself is largely intact with 218 feet of the original 220 remaining. The N.C. Office of State Archaeology has marked the site from May 1 until Nov. 1 this year, designating the Condor as the first North Carolina Heritage Dive Site.”The bow is still attached to the wreck along with her sternpost and rudder,” said Greg Stratton, archaeological dive supervisor for the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “In between are outer hull plating, intact I-beam frames, the water tank, ‘beehive’ boilers, both engines, paddle wheel shafts, paddle wheel hubs, keelson and too many pieces of structure to mention.”One of the passengers aboard the Condor on her ill-fated maiden voyage was Rose O’Neal Greenhow, a famous Confederate spy returning to the states. According to the Underwater Archaeological Bureau Site Assessment, because she was concerned about being captured by the Union, Greenhow wanted to be sent ashore in a small lifeboat after the Condor ran aground. She drowned in the surf, allegedly with gold meant for the Confederacy. The rest of the crew rowed safely to shore the following day.Greenhow was reportedly the only one to perish in the accident that night. She was given a military funeral and is buried among other war dead in Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington.If divers want to experience this piece of N.C. history, dive slates provide a self-guided tour for divers and help them interpret what they are seeing. Divers can take a charter from the Carolina Beach Inlet to Condor, or kayak to the site. There are mooring lines at the site for boats and kayaks.The project is essentially an underwater museum so divers can visit and see what a blockade runner like the Condor was like and what it might have been like to live and work on the vessel.N.C.’s Cultural Resources Secretary Susi Hamilton officially dedicated the site last month, which was a joint project between several state agencies and private partnerships with SeaGrant and The Friends of Fort Fisher. It became the dream of several of the state’s archeologists since it was first mapped in 1994. The site will be free to visit, but preserved with donations.”I am so delighted to help dedicate the first Heritage Dive Site in North Carolina, and one that I hope will be the first of many underwater sites celebrating and preserving our state’s rich maritime heritage,” said Hamilton.The site is accessible even for beginning divers and snorkelers. But if dry land is more appealing, visitors can also learn about the Condor’s history through artifacts housed at Fort Fisher State Historic Site’s Visitors Center, or see a replica of the engine room in one of the tanks at the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.As an official Heritage Dive Site, the Condor will be maintained by the Office of State Archaeology, with buoys marking the site and a travel line along the wreck for explorers. By designating it as North Carolina’s First Heritage Dive Site, the office hopes the Condor’s maritime heritage will be preserved and protected for years to come.The new Heritage Dive Site was intended “to educate, to further heritage tourism and to teach divers stewardship,” said Stratton.Divers and snorkelers are encouraged to “take only pictures, leave only bubbles” to help preserve this important piece of history.While venturing below the sea, divers can also spot hundreds of fascinating dive sites, including historic shipwrecks and ocean ledges that house prehistoric fossils. The Underwater Archaeology Branch of the North Carolina Office of State Archaeology (UAB) at Fort Fisher maintains extensive records on everything from wooden dugout canoes to iron-hulled blockade runners and classic steamboats. In all, the UAB keeps track of more than 5,000 documented shipwrecks of the state’s coastline.