"OLD BALDY" LIGHTHOUSE
Bald Head Island Lighthouse (Old Baldy)
Bald Head Island, NC
Latitude: 33° 52' 24.6" N
Longitude: 78° 00' 01.4" W
Bald Head Island Lighthouse, also known as Old Baldy, is located three miles offshore from Southport on Bald Head Island at the mouth of the mighty Cape Fear River. It was but one in a network of lights established in the area beginning in 1794. It is also in the vicinity of the infamous offshore "Frying Pan Shoals," which plagued shippers for centuries. Bald head Island is in fact part of a larger complex of islands known as Smith Island and is both a rich natural habitat for beautiful and unique flora and fauna, as well as a vessel of maritime history and lore.
Since Wilmington was and continues to be the state’s most important port, there have been continuous efforts to light the way along the Cape Fear’s winding two dozen miles of narrow channels leading there. Before reaching the mouth of the river, ships had to contend with massive, barely submerged mountains of sand known as Frying Pan Shoals. The shoals extend thirty-four miles off the tip of Bald Head Island in the Atlantic Ocean waiting for hapless victims in the dark. Providing light to help ships feel their way into and along the river was critical.
During the early 1790s, the federal government—new owners of existing American
lighthouses only since August 15, 1789– decided that it was necessary to place a beacon near the river’s entrance to assure safe navigation around the shoals and into port. Consequently, the first Bald Head Island Light Station was completed and lighted late in 1794 or early 1795. It was merely a beginning.
Unfortunately, this first Bald Head Island Light didn’t last long as constant erosion of the river bank near the lighthouse took a toll, and the lighthouse was ordered to be demolished by the U.S. Lighthouse Service–then known as the Lighthouse Establishment--in 1813.
In 1817, a new octagonal brick tower was built by Daniel S. Way of brick and plaster and rose 110 feet above the island. As added backup to Old Baldy and those venturing upon the sea, a lightship was anchored off the river’s mouth to warn of the shifting Frying Pan shoals. It is admirable that a constant lineup of lightships served until the newer Texas-type platform light took over duty in 1964 as the Frying Pan Tower.
Meanwhile, back at Old Baldy, mariners’ complaints kept coming in that there wasn’t enough light where they needed it to find the mouth of the Cape Fear while dodging Frying Pan Shoals. During the late 1840s into the early 1850s, various improvements were made to the lantern room and an improved lighting system was installed. In 1851, a critical government report dealt a blow to the usefulness of the light. Its position on the island, its height, and its insufficient light made it unable to do the needed job. But the Lighthouse Service kept trying to make it work; indeed, after taking advantage of better lens technology available to the United States, a third-order Fresnel lens was put to work in 1855.
To provide beacons along the nearly twenty-five miles of wandering channels to the Port of Wilmington, Congress appropriated $36,000 in 1848 to establish three beacons, two sets of range lights, a light boat, and one buoy. Most were complete the following year, and the final beacon was finished in 1855. Cape Fear travelers and boat captains enjoyed only six years of relative comfort that they would not run aground on obscure shoals. These lights were darkened soon after the Civil War and never ordered to be restored.
In 1861, the Confederate Army closed Old Baldy down for security reasons and five years later it was finally decommissioned when a screwpile light was built at Federal Point (at Ft. Fisher) to guard the Cape Fear River’s north entrance at New Inlet. After that, the Army Corps of Engineers installed The Rocks, a 4,400-foot rock dam, which caused shoaling and the intentional closing of New Inlet. Therefore, Federal Point was deactivated in 1880 and Old Baldy was put back in service.
Old Baldy still could not provide a light strong enough to help ocean-going ships trying to avoid the treacherous Frying Pan Shoals. Sailors had called loudly for a more brilliant light in the area for over forty years, but it was not until 1903 when a more visible beacon at the Cape Fear Light Station on Bald Head Island was accomplished. A 150-foot skeletal steel tower was constructed closer to the ocean; however, it was three miles from where supplies reached the island, so there was intense effort to build this beacon. The Cape Fear Light Station remained active until it was demolished in 1958 by the U.S. Coast Guard in favor of the new Oak Island Lighthouse built on the opposite shore of the river in Caswell Beach. The foundation and remains of the Cape Fear Light Station have been preserved and are just three miles southeast of Old Baldy and just outside the Bald Head Island Conservancy headquarters and Turtle Central gift shop. Old Baldy stayed active until 1935 when it was deactivated for the last time.
Old Baldy got its bright face on again when it was relit in 1985 as an unofficial navigational aid; however, in a true sense, a historic structure so striking as this that has long been an icon for the island is not meant to have a dark lantern room each night. There are 112 stairs to the top, originally made from yellow pine from nearby forests. Some of these stairs have been replaced but some of the original timbers for the landings are still in place.
The nonprofit Old Baldy Foundation (OBF) restored the tower and opened it to the public for climbing in 1995. OBF owns, maintains, and staffs this lighthouse, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. And, while the keeper's cottage was destroyed many years ago, a replica was built in 2000 that houses a very attractive museum and store. Visitors can learn about early life on the island, find out who Charlie Swan was, and buy a unique memento of this historic site–just for starters.
The museum and lighthouse climbing hours in spring are Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Summer hours from Memorial Day until Labor Day are Monday -Saturday 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday hours are 11 a.m.- 5 p.m. The light station is closed January and February.
The Old Baldy Lighthouse and Museum admission is $6/adult (13 and up), $3/youth (3-12), and toddlers (2 and under) are admitted at no charge. But first, you must reach the island by ferry; the current fee is $22 for an adult and $11 for children.
The fee to climb the lighthouse goes entirely for lighthouse maintenance and restoration efforts by the OBF. The Foundation offers an attractive package for touring the island and lighthouse.
Passenger-only ferries to Bald Head Island depart from historic Southport, a quaint riverside town full of interesting places to shop, dine, and explore history, as well as the impressive Southport Maritime Museum. Not too far away is Caswell Beach, home of the Oak Island Light Station.
There are no cars allowed on Bald Head Island, hence all of the ferries are passenger only. Transportation on the island is by walking, by rental bicycles, or by rental golf carts. More information can be found at the Bald Head Island Transportation website.
The Frying Pan Tower was once a U.S. Coast Guard station, decommissioned in 2004. It is now privately owned since 2010 as a rustic "bed-and-breakfast for the adventurous,” that can house eight paying guests. Information on taking a trip to the former light station thirty-four miles off the coast and for reservations can be found on the Frying Pan Tower website, or by calling 704-907-0399.
Bald Head Island is accessible by passenger ferry from Deep Point Marina in Southport, North Carolina (GPS users: 1301 Ferry Rd. Southport, NC 28401). Take NC 211 (Howe Street) into Southport, NC. Turn left at the light at Moore St. (NC 211 continues). Bear right at the traffic circle. Turn right into Deep Point Marina. Follow the signs for passenger departure and follow instructions for parking. Old Baldy Lighthouse is a short walk from the ferry landing on the island. Current ferry costs are $22.00/per adult round trip, $11.00 per youth round trip (3-12) trip.
Visit the Bald Head Island Ferry Information website or call 910-457-5003 for schedules and more information.