Wednesday, August 02, 2017

Visiting the Condor.

Once a year, I make the trip from the mountains to Fort Fisher, to speak at during the "Beat the Heat" speaker series. It is usually the last weekend in July that I go, which was last weekend. My family often tags along, looking forward to a quick trip to the beach before school starts. We were at Fort Fisher about noon and pulled into the parking area overlooking the beach. It was storming at the time, and we really had no other place to go.

As the rain subsided, we could see two buoys off the coast. A little online research showed that these buoys mark the final resting place of the blockade runner Condor. The Condor was originally a steamer, 270 feet long and built in Scotland, with a crew of forty-five.  On September 7, the Condor steamed into Halifax. She was reportedly loaded to the gunwales with war supplies. Before long, she was on her way to the port at Wilmington. The US Navy was alerted to the Condor's  mission, and the North Atlantic Blockading Squadron was always on the lookout for ships trying to run into the Cape Fear River.

Hamilton Cochran, in his 1858 book Blockade Runners of the Confederacy, painted this picture of what happened next: The U.S.S. Niphon was the first to sight [the Condor's] long, gray hull, a mere shadow in the darkness. Up shot the warning calcium flares and the chase was on... The Condor was thrashing towards the Inlet with every ounce of steam her boilers could produce A cloud of black smoke belched from her triple stacks. The Niphon's bow chasers barked and shells tore through the Condor's sparse rigging, then plunged into the sea in white geysers of brine.

Ridge [the Captain] knew that he could outrun the Niphon, for the bar was close. To starboard loomed the Mound Battery at Fort Fisher. It would be only a matter of minutes now before the Condor would plunge within the protective range of those big Confederate guns. Just then, out of the blackness ahead, loomed a vessel's hull and spars. To the Condor's pilot that meant only one thing - "a damned Yankee" gunboat barring the way. In an instant response to his cry of "Hard a-starboard," the Condor heeled and swung away. Seconds later the keel struck the treacherous shoals to the right of the channel. She lurched, scraped, then came to a jarring halt... In the misty dawn those aboard the stranded Condor saw that it was not a Federal man-of-war that had loomed in their path, but the wreck of the British blockade runner Night Hawk... the Niphon moved in for the kill. More calcium flares soared skyward as the Union cruiser again fired at the helpless Condor. Instantly Fort Fisher replied and drove off the eager Niphon with a barrage of shells.

The Condor later broke up in the relentless surf.

Among the cargo and passengers was the famous Rose O'Neal Greenhow. She was a Confederate spy, who had been captured, imprisoned, released, and then sent to Europe to help build support for the Confederacy. On August 19, 1864, Greenhow left Europe, bound for Richmond, carrying dispatches. When the Condor ran aground, she transferred to a rowboat, determined to reach the shore. The boat was swamped in the surf, and Greenhow drowned, possibly weighted down by dispatches and gold sewn into her skirt. She is buried in Wilmington.

The Condor was recently declared a North Carolina Heritage Dive Site by the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. The ship is roughly 700 yards off the beach, in 25 feet of water. Much of the Condor's infrastructure, like the boilers and engines, paddle wheel shafts and hubs, and other hull plating are still visible.

The story of the Condor is just one story of the many stories of the blockade runners that are sunk in and around the Fort Fisher area. In the area between Wrightsville Beach and the southern tip of Bald Head Island are the wrecks of at least nineteen blockade runners, and three US vessels. There are more in the Cape Fear River, and along Oak Island, Holden Beach, and Ocean Isle Beach. Each of these also has stories to be told.

I did not get to dive the wreck of the Condor. Maybe one day that opportunity will present itself. For now, I must be content on gazing off into the surf, wondering what treasures lie beneath the waves. 

The two buoys on the right mark the final resting place of the Condor.

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