Charlotte F.D. to lend 3D sonar to I.D. sunken Civil War-era ship

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ANGES FRY
The Llama, built by Caird & Co., is believed to be very similar to the Agnes E. Fry, which the company also built. Photos courtesy of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

They have the location, they have the size and some noticeable missing parts, but state underwater archaeologists will get the assistance of some advanced technology to confirm their hypothesis that a Civil War-era ship found in late February off the coast of Oak Island is the Anges E. Fry – one of three blockade runners that were lost during the war.

The Charlotte Fire Department will help state underwater archaeologists with a more sophisticated 3D sonar device to help to confirm this boat’s identity the week of April 18, according to the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.  Capt. J.D. Thomas, of the fire department, and a team of five search and rescue divers will assist the state’s maritime archaeologists during the sonar operation.

Archaeologist Greg Stratton, right, with East Carolina University grad-student Hoyt Alexander, diving on the recently discovered Civil War-era shipwreck. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
Archaeologist Greg Stratton, right, with East Carolina University grad student Hoyt Alexander, diving on the recently discovered Civil War-era shipwreck.

The large iron-hulled Civil War era steamer was discovered during sonar operations on Feb. 27, by researchers and archaeologists from the state’s underwater archaeology branch and the Institute of International Maritime Research. The sunken vessel was found just 18 feet below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Cape Fear River, 27 miles downstream from Wilmington.

“As a result of the worldwide media attention that the discovery of the Agnes E. Fry has generated, we have received an incredibly generous offer from Capt. J.D. Thomas,” Deputy State Archaeologist Billy Ray Morris said. “Through his efforts, the latest version of a 3D sonar imaging device will be available for our use in this archaeological investigation.”

Morris, who is the director of the Underwater Archaeology Branch of the N.C. Office of State Archaeology, said evidence found at the site thus far has brought the team closer to their working hypothesis that the vessel is one of three blockade runners lost during the Civil War. So far, the archaeological evidence and previous sonar images adds to his working hypothesis that the ship’s identity is the Agnes E. Fry. The other two are the Spunkie and Georgianna McCaw

Thomas has arranged for the company that provides sonar systems for his dive team to bring the latest version of a sector scanning imaging sonar to the underwater researchers. Next week, Brian Abbott, president of Nautilus Marine Group International and the equipment’s owner, will accompany the dive team on site to operate the equipment. This is the first time this type of technology will be used in North Carolina on a underwater shipwreck site.

“This instrument will allow us to make a complete, multi-dimensional map of the site in a matter of days,” Morris said. “Unlike usual methods, imaging sonar does not require good visibility and is considerably faster than on-site mapping. Visibility underwater on the site is so murky that it rarely exceeds 18 inches.”

Poor visibility at the site in early March meant the state’s underwater archaeological team could only go down to the ship for one dive. The divers found unsettled river currents, which impaired the visibility at the wreck site in the adjoining Atlantic Ocean. While the dive proved difficult with visibility at one inch or less, Morris said the team was able to confirm some the key findings discovered by February’s sonar images, including the vessel’s size and what it was missing.

Researchers and archaeologist have discovered what is believed to be a sunken Civil War-era ship called a blockade runner. Photo courtesy of the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.
The first sonar image of what researchers and archaeologist believe to be a sunken Civil War-era ship called a blockade runner.

Detailed analysis through the initial sonar image showed the vessel’s length and structure, and indicated that both the engines and the paddlewheel shaft were missing, which fits precisely with salvage records and another inspection that occurred on March 22.

The vessel has been measured at 225 feet, while the Fry was 236 feet long, Morris said.

“The other runners, Georgianna McCaw and Spunkie are both considerably shorter and a much earlier design than Fry,” Morris said. “The boiler type, as well as the hull design of the wreck are both indicative of a more modern vessel than either McCaw or Spunkie. The difference in the lengths has to do with the damage to the bow and stern.”

A team of state archaeologists from the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources Underwater Archaeology Branch and the Institute for International Maritime Research (IIMR) continue to investigate the iron-hulled steamer shipwreck.

The shipwreck was discovered during a search for the ships lost during the Union campaign to blockade the port of Wilmington during the Civil War. The project is funded by the National Park Service through an American Battlefield Protection Program Grant. The Underwater Archaeology Branch of the Office of State Archaeology is within the N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources.

“Every piece of evidence we have examined to date, from sonar images to primary documentation, points directly to this shipwreck being Agnes E. Fry,” Dr. Gordon Watts, IIMR director, said. “We look forward to working with the Charlotte team to confirm our suspicions.”

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