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Bald Head Island, NC

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Bald Head Island

At the confluence of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean lies an island like nowhere else. Bald Head Island is truly an oasis from the rigors of the mainland. As you arrive by boat – either passenger ferry or private yacht, you will feel the slowed pace of life awaiting its visitors. With ample acreage protected from development and miles of beautiful beaches, this place provides a pristine setting for its greatest treasure, Bald Head Lighthouse, also known as Old Baldy or the Cape Fear Light, which welcomes visitors to the island.

Bald Head Island is actually part of Smith Island, a collection of islands criss-crossed by creeks and inlets. Bald Head received its name from the denuded dunes on its south beach, which resembled a bald head. Extending twenty-eight miles from the southeast end of the island are the Frying Pan Shoals, a collection of shifting sandbars, covered by a thin layer of water. Early sailors dubbed the area Cape Fear, no doubt a reference to the feeling evoked by the shoals.
Bald Head Island Facts:
A 10-acre site on the west side of Bald Head Island, along the banks of the Cape Fear River, was selected for North Carolina’s first lighthouse. The property was purchased from Benjamin Smith, who would later become the governor of North Carolina. The original Bald Head light was built in 1794, primarily to guide traffic to the Cape Fear River and the growing port of Wilmington, located several miles upriver. Unfortunately, due to severe erosion along the river, the demolition of the lighthouse was ordered in 1813.

By 1817, the replacement light “Old Baldy” was built further inland and lit, for just under $16,000. Still the oldest in North Carolina, the octagonal brick and plaster tower stands 90 feet high and was originally equipped with an array of lamps and reflectors. The lantern room is offset from the center of the tower, and as technology improved, it later housed a Fresnel lens. At its base, the tower is 36’ wide and at its top 14 ½ feet wide, while the walls are 5 feet thick at the base and taper to 2 ½ feet at the top. The rectangular stairway leading up the inside of the tower is made of Carolina yellow pine.

The original keeper’s dwelling, built on the west side of Old Baldy, was eventually lost to erosion. The replacement was a 1 ½ story cottage, erected in the1850s on the east side of the lighthouse. When this structure was destroyed by fire, a larger two-story dwelling was constructed on the same site. In 1931, this larger dwelling was also lost to fire. A replica of the 1850s dwelling was completed in 2000 and now serves as the Smith Island Museum of History.

Some problems with the Bald Head Lighthouse included its location and illumination. Positioned some four miles from the eastern end of the island and equipped with a minor light, the lighthouse was unsuccessful in guiding ships safely past Frying Pan Shoals. A lightship was therefore placed on the shoals and served from 1854 until 1964.

In 1866, the Bald Head light was discontinued when the screw-pile Federal Point lighthouse was built eight miles upstream. However, this new light was deactivated in 1879 when the New Inlet closed, and Old Baldy returned to service. Meanwhile, all requests for funds to raise the light and to install a first-order lens were never approved. In 1898 the Lighthouse Board approved a 159-foot, skeleton tower, named the Cape Fear Lighthouse, to be located on the southeastern end of Bald Head Island. The Cape Fear light was served from 1903 to 1958, when the Oak Island Lighthouse became operational.

Old Baldy was finally decommissioned in 1935. Its Fresnel lens was removed from the tower, and from 1941 to 1958 the tower housed a radio beacon. The lighthouse was sold to a private owner in 1963. After another change of hands, the lighthouse was then given to the Old Baldy Foundation, organized to restore North Carolina’s eldest treasure.

The restoration of Bald Head Lighthouse included recreating its endearing mottled look and placing a new cooper roof on its off-center lantern room. Visitors can now scale the 112 restored wooden stairs to the top and take in the beautiful island setting. The lighthouse was relit as an unofficial aid in 1985. A replica of the 1850s keepers cottage was finished in 2000 adjacent to the lighthouse and houses the Smith Island Museum, providing a permanent home for over 400 years worth of the region’s maritime history, including a 1908 keeper’s uniform and two lens panels from the Cape Fear Lighthouse.


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