When college student Jessica Stallings explored the Condor, a sunken Civil War blockade runner, last July, the water was so murky she kept bumping into the wrecked ship.
Divers this weekend should have it easier.
Stallings was part of a group of volunteer divers sent by the state’s Underwater Archaeology Branch to help map the Condor, which is North Carolina’s first historic dive site. The state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources will dedicate the ship as a Heritage Dive Site in Kure Beach on Friday.
Stallings, a junior at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington who is from Franklinton, said the dive left her with a better understanding of state history.
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“I thought it was really cool to go down and see a bit of history,” Stallings said. “We need to let others know it’s there and preserve it. ... You never know how long that kind of thing will stay around.”
Since Stallings’ dive, the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources has added the amenities needed to make the site attractive to divers.
The department installed buoys marking the shipwreck, which can’t be seen from boats passing above, as well as a travel line to guide divers from the Condor’s bow to its stern. There are maps of the ship printed on slates that divers can take underwater to guide them.
“The vessel is in better shape than any other blockade runner I’ve seen a photo of or in person,” said Greg Stratton, the Underwater Archaeology Branch’s dive supervisor.
Divers won’t be finding souvenirs on the Condor, nor would they be able to remove them from the wreck if they did. Stratton said looters had picked the site clean of artifacts by the ’80s.
The 220-foot Condor is the first stop in a proposed dive trail that will include more shipwrecks off the state’s coast, said John “Billy Ray” Morris, leader of the Underwater Archaeology Branch. The office has an eye on the U.S.S. Peterhoff as the next stop in the trail, Stratton said. It’s a Civil War-era Union ship that was sunk near Kure Beach when another Union vessel mistook it for a Confederate blockade runner.
Morris was a key player in developing Florida’s first shipwreck dive trail. Florida is the only state with historic dive trails, but it won’t be for long if Morris gets his way. When he signed on to lead the Underwater Archaeology Branch five years ago, creating a historic dive trail that started with the Condor was on his “short list.”
The ship stood out because it’s in relatively shallow water, about 25 feet deep, and less than half a mile from shore, compared with other wrecks that are miles from the coast.
Last summer, Morris trained 18 divers, including Stallings, to be underwater archaeologists, teaching them to measure and record data about the Condor in a YMCA pool.
“The whole point of a heritage dive site is to work together with the diving community to create a sense of stewardship,” he said.
He planned on sending all the volunteer divers, who were divided into three groups, to explore the Condor, but bad weather meant only Stallings’ group got to see and touch the ship.
Geared for agriculture, not industry, the South relied on the English manufactured goods during the Civil War. Blockade runners brought their cargo in during the dead of night, the easiest time for them to slip past the Union ships blockading Confederate ports.
“Blockade running was a staggeringly lucrative trade,” Morris said. “One succesful voyage was the equivalent of five years’ salary for a sailor at that time. ... Wilmington was probably one of the most significant ports.”
Headed for Wilmington and stocked with Confederate uniforms and other goods, the Condor ran aground after swerving to miss another stranded blockade runner.
The Condor’s maiden voyage became its final voyage on the night of Oct. 1, 1864. The Confederates couldn’t recover the ship, and Union forces later “shelled” her, shooting cannon shells at the Condor to make the ship worthless to either side.
Only one person died during the wreck of the Condor. Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow panicked when the ship ran aground, begging for a life boat and crew to take her inland despite rough seas. If a Union ship happened upon the Condor, capture meant imprisonment and maybe hanging for the spy.
The boat flipped over less than 50 yards from the Condor – Greenhow sank, while the crew taking her ashore swam back to the ship. A combination of Greenhow’s heavy clothing and gold coins sewn into her clothes drowned her, Morris said.
When Stallings learned the history of the wreck before diving it back in July, she realized that she’d heard of Condor before. She had learned about a female Confederate spy on a doomed ship in a UNCW maritime history class.
“I didn’t know there were so many wrecks ... off the coast of North Carolina,” Stallings said. “Nobody has taken the time to map them or tell people about them because we don’t have the resources for it. We’ll get there eventually.
“It was unbelievable to be a part of it.”
The site is open from June to November. The state hasn’t chosen a permanent site to distribute the dive maps, but initially they will be available at Patriot Dive Center in Wilmington and at the Fort Fisher State Historic Site. The maps have the latitude and longitude of the Condor. You don’t need special permission to dive the wreck. Find out more about the Heritage site at http://archaeology.ncdcr.gov/underwater-archaeology-branch/heritage-dive-site. Kure Beach is about 150 miles from the Triangle.