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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Fort Fisher new historic dive site reveals what lies beneath the waves at Kure Beach

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Fort Fisher’s Kure Beach becomes an historical dive site.

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“Rose O’Neal Greenhow is sitting in the front row in widow’s weeds,” I noted. She looked conspicuous in 2017 when many of the people under the tent were in light summer clothing.

HISTORICAL DIVE: Fort Fisher Historic Site makes for a great view of the water, where supposed treasure lives on Rose O’Neal Greenhow aboard The Candor, an official diving site in eastern NC. Photo by Tom Dorgan

HISTORICAL DIVE: Fort Fisher Historic Site makes for a great view of the water, where supposed treasure lives on Rose O’Neal Greenhow aboard The Candor, an official diving site in eastern NC. Photo by Tom Dorgan

“Do you want to get your picture taken with Rose?” I was asked repeatedly but declined. She looked beautiful and foreboding—not bad for one who had been dead for 152 years, all things considered. 

It was a warm and windy Friday morning on June 16, 2017. Gathered under a tent at the Battle Acre at Fort Fisher, people congregated to see Susi Hamilton, Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, dedicate the first Heritage Dive Site: The Condor, a blockade runner that is possibly best remembered for attempting to bring Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow home from a trip to England.

It was October 1, 1864.  Rose had been in England for most of 1863 and 1864 on a diplomatic (and fundraising) mission for the Confederacy. It was long enough to get engaged, publish her memoir and meet Queen Victoria. So, basically, she had good time-management skills. On August 19, 1864, she joined the maiden voyage of The Condor to North Carolina. She brought along dispatches for the Confederacy and gold sovereigns sewn into her clothes.

We were blockaded for most of the Civil War by the Union Navy that tried to cut off trade and supplies of the Confederate States Army. But many blockade runners—shallow vessels that sat low in the water and moved with great speed—still succeeded in getting through the Union line into the Cape Fear River and port of Wilmington—but not all.

The Condor was not so lucky. On her first voyage out, she was run aground by the USS Niphon, a Union gunboat. Rose was a wanted woman; she had been jailed in D.C. for her activities. She insisted a rowboat get her to the safety of shore and out of reach of the Union—who would not only capture her but probably not be so lenient as they were the last time. The rowboat capsized, and the rebel was dragged to a watery grave by the weight of her clothing and gold she carried.

Now, 152 years later, the same boat has been located, surveyed and marked by mooring buoys, so divers can investigate the site themselves and literally touch the history submerged beneath our waves.  “It is the first of what we hope will be several sites,” Hamilton noted.

“It really is the only time machine that we’ve got. You can go down there and touch it.”

– Dr. Gordon Watts.

According to the NC Office of State Archaeology’s website, the 218.6-foot-long wreck sits in about 25 feet of water with her lower hull, paddlewheels, engines, and boilers still in place. The site does caution:

“The main structure of the wreck itself is only 21 feet below the water’s surface, while parts of her machinery are only 13 feet below. This would normally mark the site with a beginner’s rating. However, the sometimes less-than-clear water in North Carolina’s near-shore wrecks, along with it consisting entirely of 150-year-old iron, makes this a slight step above beginner.”   

Anyone who wants to dive on the wreck can find a slate with a map of it to take with them. Explorers could then moor their boats on the dinghy—easily visible from shore—and literally dive back in time to touch a world sleeping below the sea.

Hamilton referred to our rich history of shipwrecks in the area ready to be explored once sites are surveyed, prepped and safe for the public. “What good is it if we can’t share that history with the public at large?” she quantified.

During her dedication speech, she recounted her experiences diving on a wreck in Aruba, which got me thinking: Travel to dive? So, what we’re really talking about is creating a special opportunity to bring divers to our area—to learn about and experience history and spend money here.

“Absolutely,” Hamilton confirmed as I floated the question past her.

People travel here to dive. They need food, places to stay, transportation, maybe boat rental. It all adds up pretty quickly. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the impact on the local economy of an artificial reef, in this case an intentionally sunk WWII-era vessel, for Monroe County Florida “generated a total impact on sales/output of $7.29 million, about $3.2 million in income, and the creation of 105 new jobs.” Visitors were responsible for the bulk of spending. It sounds like if we market this actively to divers, we might be on to something.

Fort Fisher itself has been a draw for years, as a key port for the supply of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which fell to the Union in 1865. With no way to effectively supply the army, the days of the Confederacy were numbered, and a few months later, a truce was signed at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

Known as “The Gibraltar of the South,” due to the strength and dependability, Fort Fisher was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1961. We still have about 10 percent of the original fort and a palisade fence has been restored. I remember seeing it for the first time and marveling at how difficult the slick poles would be to climb and how foreboding the points at the top looked. Even to a 6-year-old it was clear the fort meant business.

In 2016 the site hosted over 830,000 visitors. According to the Civil War Trust’s Blue, Gray and Green brochure, the average family of four that visited a Civil War Battlefield in 2013 spent $1,000 during the trip:

• $290 on food and beverages

• $240 for lodging

• $230 on shopping

• $100 for transportation

• $80 for admissions

  $60 on miscellaneous expenditures.

That’s a good chunk of money flowing into our local economy. 

It seems appropriate to see a marriage of diving-related tourism with Civil War tourism begin at Fort Fisher. The North Carolina Underwater Archaeology Center is located on the Fort Fisher Site property.

I frequently talk with out-of-town guests on my Literary History Walking Tour about Rose O’Neal Greenhow. Lots of people ask if her body was recovered. While there was great financial incentive to find  it, in the form of the gold she brought with her, perhaps that wasn’t the real treasure. More lasting is what already draws over 830,000 visitors a year to a tiny spit of land at the end of HWY 421. The real treasure The Condor carried wasn’t gold sovereigns; it was to become a bridge to a past—to a night that turned the tide in the lives of many people, a night preserved almost perfectly and silently beneath the waves of Kure Beach.

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