Underwater Museum

BY Simon Gonzalez

History books are a great source of information. For instance they can tell you the Condor was a 220-foot iron-hulled triple-stacked side-wheel steamship built in Scotland specifically to be used as a blockade runner. They can tell you that she ran aground during her maiden voyage on October 1 1864 coming to grief on a sandbar near Fort Fisher while trying to bring goods into Wilmington during the Civil War.

A good historical source will include important details like the resulting drowning of the Condor’s most notorious passenger Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow.

But the problem with history books is they can be a little dry.

“I can read stuff all day long ” says John “Billy Ray” Morris. “But if you look at pictures from the time period they are usually black and white. History is in color. That ocean today looks just like it did when that boat went down. The sky is the same color the ocean felt the same and tasted the same. It wasn’t some Currier and Ives painting. It was the real deal.”

When Morris tells the story you can practically feel the wind and the rain and taste the salt spray as the Condor makes its run past the Union blockaders in the pre-dawn hours. You can feel the excitement of the chase and the fear as she swerves to avoid the CSS Night Hawk which had run aground.

You can hear the captain passionately arguing with Rose Greenhow telling her the ship is safe under the guns of Fort Fisher and she doesn’t need to try to make it ashore in the lifeboat in the dark in rough seas. You can see the waves that capsize her launch and sense the terror as Greenhow vanishes beneath the sea.

In Morris’ hands history is more than a recitation of facts from the past. It’s alive and rich in details. The Condors one-and-only voyage happened 150 years ago but she is just as real today. She’s not just a page in a history book but a shipwreck currently lying in about 25 feet of water about 700 yards from the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher.

Morris has been diving the wreck since the ’70s. He’s still diving it today as the head of the North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Branch (UAB) headquartered at Fort Fisher.

“One of the reasons this appeals so much is it’s got a great story ” Morris says. “You’ve got Rose O’Neal Greenhow the ship was on her maiden voyage when she ran aground. And then it’s an awesome dive site for people to go down and take a look at. Actually being able to see it brings it home to people. There’s something about the tangible feel of it.”

Prompted by the desire to make history come alive and to help people experience the feel of it the UAB is turning the Condor shipwreck into the state’s first heritage dive site.

The underwater museum will function much the same way as its land brethren allowing “patrons” to experience a piece of history by seeing it and touching it. There will be buoys to mark the spot and mooring lines for boats to tie off. There will be maps and information on Mylar slates to help divers interpret what they are seeing.

“When we set the dive park up people will be able to swim out to these buoys — a long swim — or kayak out and tie off ” says Greg Stratton archaeological dive supervisor and diving safety officer with UAB. “You can either snorkel or take your dive gear and dive it.”

Above-water visitors can read about the Condor on signs within sight of the buoys and at the Fort Fisher visitors center. The aquarium has a replica of the engine room in one of the tanks.

“Visitors to this area whether they dive or like museums or want to go the aquarium can experience the wreck ” Morris says. “I think that’s a really cool thing. And if they’re really into it we’ll give them directions so they can pay homage to Rose Greenhow [who is buried at Oakdale Cemetery in Wilmington].”

The Condor is a treat for divers. The blockade runner is virtually intact. Morris has measured 218 feet from stem to stern just a couple of feet short of her original length of 220 feet. (Some well-regarded sources put it at 270 but Morris says that was because of a crease in an original document that made the two look like a seven.)

“The actual wreck itself is awesome ” Stratton says. “You can see how much is still there. The engines are still connected to the pistons. And it’s big enough that someone Billy Ray’s and my size can swim through without hitting anything with our gear on. That’s how preserved it is.”

The heritage dive site came about due to Morris’ efforts.

Billy Ray is large — at least 6 feet 4 inches — and larger than life. He’s part folksy storyteller and part scientist mixing in the occasional granule of salty language with terms like “spatial analysis” and “vector points.”

He grew up in Wilmington diving and surfing. His mom read him history books and he watched “Sea Hunt” with his dad. When Gordon Watts the state’s first director of the UAB came to Hoggard High School to discuss finding the USS Monitor Morris knew what he wanted to do with his life.

After getting his undergrad at University of North Carolina Wilmington and his master’s at East Carolina Morris worked for Virginia’s Department of Historic Resources and Florida’s Bureau of Archaeological Research. He has worked historic dive sites all over the world including the recovery of the CSS Alabama off the coast of France. He and his wife also an underwater archaeologist established two research institutions in Florida.

Then five years ago he had the opportunity to come home.

“I’d always said I’d never work for a state agency again unless they put me in charge of North Carolina ” he says. “They offered me the job and here I am.”

The UAB headquarters is located in a tiny house on the grounds of the Fort Fisher historic site. The sign on the front door asks visitors to make sure the door is closed securely so snakes don’t get in.

What it lacks in space and amenities is more than made up in location. The Atlantic is just a few steps away across Fort Fisher Boulevard. Billy Ray has been known to grab his surfboard on breaks or go for a dip in the ocean.

But it’s not the site that prompted Morris to take the job. His enthusiasm for history and archaeology and what’s below the waves is contagious. Spend a couple of hours with Morris and Stratton and you’re ready to quit your job and join them.

Which is actually what Stratton did. He went back to school at East Carolina when he was 45 and now at 50 is an underwater archaeologist.

“I love diving and I’ve loved history all my life ” he says. “I absolutely love my job. I’ve loved every second I’ve worked down here.”

Almost as soon as he started Morris began working to make the Condor a heritage dive site. He had worked with Roger Smith state underwater archaeologist to establish Florida’s first one and thought it was a great idea for North Carolina. After spending hours on the bottom mapping Condor he knew she would be perfect.

“You can get to it from the beach and it’s utterly intact. Relatively speaking this thing is a museum ” he says. “As soon as I started mapping it having just gone through that with Roger I was telling the guys this place is a natural for a preserve.”

It didn’t come without some controversy. Naysayers argue that encouraging amateurs to dive wrecks could encourage removal of historic artifacts.

“At the time when underwater archaeology was a nascent discipline the theory was if you’re not an underwater archaeologist you don’t have any business being out here on wrecks ” Morris says. “Well I was diving on these wrecks before I could spell archaeology. I’m a firm believer in don’t tell them what they can’t do get them to understand why they shouldn’t do it and then they will work with you. If you go to Mount Vernon do you feel an overwhelming need to chisel a brick out of the privy and take it home? No you don’t because you understand you have a shared responsibility to a national treasure. We’re pushing for that here. Go look at it. Just do it with respect. The Aussies don’t care if you go down and dive the Great Barrier Reef but they are going to get their panties in a severe wad if you go down and take a big chunk off. And it’ll grow back. But this won’t.”

The key is education to ensure shipwrecks like the Condor are viewed as national treasures like Mount Vernon.

“They are non-renewable resources ” Stratton says. “Once they go they’re gone. One of the things we’re starting to push very much lately is teaching a sense of stewardship into the diving community and public. Take only pictures leave only bubbles. This is their shipwreck. It’s not just ours that we dive. This is North Carolina’s. It’s their cultural maritime history.”

The UAB staff approached Rob Williams owner of Patriot Dive Center in Wilmington and asked if he would train volunteers to help map the wreck and to recruit them as ambassadors to spread the word about respecting the historic importance.

“One of the things that we are big advocates for is the aquatic environment in general because that houses the world that we like to explore ” Williams says. “So we teach all of our students all of our customers to respect it and take care of it. One of the biggest focuses with the Condor project is that these shipwrecks belong to the people the residents the divers to explore. With the next hurricane or in the next 100 years they might not be here anymore. If we simply teach respect and spark an interest in the history and provide them the ease of being able to explore these wrecks I think people will enjoy and appreciate them and preserve them for hopefully many more generations.”

Along with providing education dive shops will also offer the maps that show what the underwater museum visitor is looking at.

“One of the nice things about having the map giving points of interest is for newer divers or people not familiar with wrecks it gives a simple layout of the boat ” says Heather Williams Patriot’s retail manager and Rob’s wife. “I had a pleasure boat but that doesn’t mean I understand the vastness of a Civil War ship or where the wheelhouse is or what the purpose of a column was. If I have the slate that says what the purpose was it helps explain the historical significance as well as give detail to what you are seeing in a very easy-to-understand format. It’s a matter of reading the slate seeing what’s in front of you and matching.”

The North Carolina coast is known as the “Graveyard of the Atlantic ” especially around the Outer Banks. Down here the waters off the coast especially in and around the mouth of the Cape Fear River could be called the “graveyard of the Civil War.”

“Right here around Fort Fisher we have the best collection of Civil War shipwrecks of anywhere in the world ” Morris says.

Most of them are blockade runners many of them run aground intentionally under pursuit by Union vessels.

“They’d beach ’em ” Morris says. “It was such a profitable enterprise that usually after one trip you could pay for your ship that you’d had custom built. You didn’t just bring in beans and bullets. There was a percentage that had to go to the Confederate war effort but for your troubles you could bring in whatever you wanted to and sell them to whoever had money. You’d see a real stratification of goods brought it. You’d have stuff that would sell on the docks good whiskey and nice clothes and Paris fashions for the ladies in the plantation society that could afford it. They were shrewd businessmen. These guys lived large.”

The Condor is the closest and most accessible but the UAB has documented another couple of dozen wrecks. The UAB hopes to turn all of them along with shipwrecks farther up the coast into heritage dive sites.

“Eventually we’ll create a dive trail around the state and just teach people how much history we’ve got ” Stratton says.

For more information on Rose Greenhow and the sinking of Condor see “Eternal Garden: Grace & History at Oakdale Cemetery” by Sandra Chambers in the November 2007 Wrightsville Beach Magazine “The Gathering Storm” by Dr. Chris E. Fonvielle Jr. in February 2008 and “The Lady Was a Spy” by Dr. Fonvielle in September 2014.