Sunday, February 5, 2017

Mysteries of the not so deep: More dives ahead on blockade runner Agnes E. Fry

Knife handle and deck light found on Fry (NCDNCR)

For having endured so much – being run aground, shelled by the enemy, partially salvaged and decapitated by a giant wire – the wreck of the blockade runner Agnes E. Fry still has a precious story to tell.

Archaeological divers with the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources will return, likely in May,  to the Confederate shipwreck about a half mile off Oak Island.

In water where visibility of 2 feet is a rare treat, they’ll continue to explore the Fry and collect data to create a 3D model. The vessel ran aground on Dec. 27, 1864, while trying to reach Wilmington.

“The Fry is not a difficult dive. It is fairly easy to get to. We can drop buoy right on the wreck,” says dive supervisor Greg Stratton.

But once in the shallow water, it’s easy to get disoriented.

The Llama resembled the Agnes E. Fry 

“Light cup of coffee with creamer” is the description Stratton uses to describe the underwater environment.

This will be a big year for assessing the state of the Scottish-made Fry and what cargo remains in its two holds.

Bill Ray Morris, North Carolina deputy state archaeologist, said his office has filed a report on its work thus far to the National Park Service, which provided a research grant through its American Battlefield Protection Program.

“We have received another grant, from NC Sea Grant, to revisit Fry this spring and create a research design and methodology for further investigation and recordation of this significant site,” he told the Picket.

Wreck of the Agnes E. Fry (NCDNCR)

Last year, officials announced “unprecedented detail” captured by sector-scanning sonar. A mosaic image shows the broken iron hull, smoke stack sections, I-beam frames, outer hull plating and more.

Stratton has made five dives for the project. “There is tremendous amount of structure scattered throughout the wreck.” He estimated the debris field to be 239 feet long and 50 feet wide.

Divers, since the discovery of the Fry in early 2016, have removed a chunk of coal, a deck light and remains of a handmade knife “literally laying on the deck.”

Stratton said sheet lead was rolled as a handle for an iron blade. There are thumbprints on the handle; just a small piece of the iron remains. The intact deck light is a 6-inch circle. “They put these small glass pieces on the deck or bulkhead to allow light into the cargo spaces.”

Agnes E. Fry
Officials said the cargo holds are in cavities under the structure. While machinery was removed, there are no records of the cargo being taken;  no one really knows what the Fry carried on its voyage from Nassau, Bahamas.

Blockade runners carried an odd mix of war materiel and goods intended for Southern civilians. Enterprising owners wanted to offset the risk of running the gauntlet of U.S. Navy ships trying to keep them away from vital ports, including Wilmington, N.C.

In mid-1863, the Confederacy ordered captains to carry 50 percent in war goods, such as uniforms, rifles, artillery and munitions. Most items came from Europe via the Bahamas and Bermuda.

Joseph Fry
Serving on the fast blockade runners was tough duty, and full of risks. According to a timeline, the Fry tried seven times in autumn 1864 to get through the blockade, but was unsuccessful until Nov. 5. “She also deals with a bad sickness aboard that kills several of her crew members.”

Records for the ship are scattered or nonexistent, but the end came a few miles below Southport, below Wilmington.

“While running down the shoreline toward the Cape Fear River entrance, another ship was sighted in front of the Fry, the pilot panicked and turned toward shore to miss it,” said Stratton. “Instead, he ran her aground. He was later court-martialed for this and for extorting Capt. (Joseph) Fry for more money to make the run. We think the vessel in front of her was the wreck of the Georgiana McCaw, as no Yankee vessels made mention of being there until the next day.”

For years, the top of the ship was above the water line and it was considered a navigational obstruction for the Cape Fear River.

To counter that, two tugboats anchoring a large wire 10 feet below the surface ran over the wreck site, slicing off the top of the Fry.

The National Park Service grant isn’t just covering the Fry. The state is working to locate and study other historic shipwrecks around Wilmington, including two other blockade runners that went down near the Fry. Several are just offshore and in water 14-16 feet deep.

You can just make out a porthole (NCDNCR)

“The wrecks were way more uncovered than they have ever been,” said Stratton.

Officials hope scuba divers one day will be able to visit some of the vessels. Archaeologists want to open the first state dive park off Kure Beach, featuring the well-preserved Condor.

The divers hope to complete a full assessment of the Fry this year, and apply for other grants to further the research. But don’t expect a rush of artifacts to be brought to the surface.

“For every dollar you spend in the water, you will spend 30 and 40 dollars conserving it,” Stratton said.

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