In 1864 the Condor, a falcon class ship built in Glasgow, Scotland, left port in England on its maiden voyage bound for Wilmington, NC. On board was a very special passenger, the famed Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow.
In short Greenhow, was a Washington society woman who had been visiting England promoting her book, purchased a ticket for passage aboard the Condor – which was said to be “uncatchable” by Union warships – to take her to Wilmington, the last port open to the Confederacy which had been blockaded since 1861 by an order of President Abraham Lincoln.
Tragedy struck, however, as Greenhow returned home in 1864. Her ship ran aground along the North Carolina coast at Fort Fisher on Oct. 1, 1864, and Rose, fearing capture and execution as a spy demanded that she be taken ashore in a smaller boat.
As volunteers from the ship’s crew rowed Greenhow toward the shore a wave crashed over the lifeboat capsizing in the surf. The Richmond Virginia born spy was drowned as she was pulled down, as legend has it, by the weight of the $2,000 in Confederate bound British gold sovereigns that were sewn into the lining of her dress.
The Union secrets she was carrying with her also were also lost. Her’s was the only life lost on that ship that night. She is buried among other war dead in Oakdale Cemetery.
Over time cargo from the Condor and other Civil-War era wrecks off the coast of North Carolina, however, have become key in helping conservationists and archaeologists to piece together some the state’s most interesting history.
On June 16, 2017, almost 150 years later, the blockade runner wreckage was dedicated as the first is hoped will be a series of Heritage Dive Sites.
Susi Hamilton, secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Natural and Cultural Resources says the Condor is essentially an underwater museum where divers can visit to see what a blockade runner was like and what it might have been like to live and work on the vessel.
It is a joint public/private project between several state agencies, as well as private partnerships with SeaGrant and The Friends of Fort Fisher.
Condor was built by Randolph Elder and Company, of Govan, Scotland for Alexander Collie and Company specifically to run the blockade. One of five sisters; Ptarmigan, Flamingo, Falcon, Condor, and Evelyn, Condor epitomized the search for speed under steam.
Built of iron with three conical “beehive” boilers, two oscillating engines, and self-feathering paddle wheel buckets these sister ships were heralded as the world’s fastest steamers. At 221’ LOA with a 28’ beam these ships were radically long, low, and lean to meet the requirements of their clandestine trade.
Thoroughly documented from 1994 through 1996, the Condor archaeological site offers the best preserved blockade runner vessel remains to be found anywhere in the world.
The extant vessel fabric is 218’ 6” in length, with both undamaged engines still mounted, and a fully intact paddlewheel shaft still sitting in place on its bearings. Both wheel hubs are still attached, as well as the remains of both wheels’ spider assemblies including several articulated bucket control rods.
Unfortunately, the unique “beehive” boilers were destroyed by the gunners at Fort Fisher when they shelled Condor to prevent its capture. However, despite the damage inflicted by the artillerists, Condor remains unique in the extensive, articulated vessel fabric present at the site.