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Frying Pan Shoals, NC  Lighthouse best viewed by boat or plane.Privately owned, no access without permission.Overnight lodging available.   

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Frying Pan Shoals Lighthouse

In 1784, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law that levied a duty of six pence per ton on all vessels sailing up the Cape Fear River towards Wilmington. The collected money was intended for a lighthouse “at the extreme point of Bald-head or some other convenient place near the bar of said river, in order that vessels may be enabled thereby to avoid the great shoal called the Frying-Pan.”

Frying Pan Shoals Lightship on station in 1949
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
If you take a look at a nautical chart, it is immediately clear that the shoals were named because their shape resembles a frying pan, with the circular portion of the pan centered around the mouth of the Cape Fear River and the long, thin handle reaching far out into the Atlantic.

The treacherous Frying Pan Shoals extend some eighteen miles southeast of Bald Head Island, and the first two lighthouses built on the island in 1794 and 1817 proved inadequate at marking the extremities of the shoals. The Lighthouse Board thus ordered the placement of a lightship on the shoal in 1854 and provided the following notice:

The vessel will carry two lights at an elevation of about 40 feet above the level of the sea, on her two masts—she will be painted yellow, as well as her lower masts, but with white topmasts—and she will carry an openwork oval daymark, painted black, at an elevation of about 58 feet above the water line. Her yellow hull will have "Frying-pan Shoals" in large black letters on both sides.

In 1883, the Lighthouse Board had an experimental iron beacon prepared to test the stability of the shoals, likely with the intent to erect some form of a permanent structure. The beacon was stored at the Castle Pickney buoy depot in South Carolina awaiting an opportunity to put it in position, but record of this ever happening hasn’t been found.

Even after the 150-foot, skeletal Cape Fear Lighthouse was erected in 1903 and equipped with a first-order Fresnel lens that was powerful enough to cover most of the shoals, the Lighthouse Board still felt a lightvessel was needed. Seven lightships served at Frying Pan Shoals from 1854 to 1930, when LV 115 was first assigned to the station. LV 115 was built in 1929 – 1930 at the Charleston Dry-dock & Machine Shop in Charleston, South Carolina and was stationed at Frying Pan Shoals until 1964. The lightship was absent from the station during World War II, when it was commissioned as an examination vessel at Cristóbal, near the Panama Canal, from 1942 to 1944, and at Charleston, South Carolina, from 1944 to 1945.

David Melvin began his service aboard LV 115 in 1959, when the vessel was known by the Coast Guard designation WAL 537. Melvin recalls that every two years they would return to port for repairs, and he would help place concrete in the bilges where the hull skin was too thin to be welded. A crew of fifteen was assigned to the lightship, but there were typically ten men aboard, as a third would be taking a fourteen-day leave after having spent twenty-eight days at sea. The men stood a six-hour watch, and then had twelve hours off that they could devote to sleeping, watching movies, catching up on correspondence, or fishing, which was excellent at the station.

Tower components being barged to site in 1964
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Melvin was aboard WAL 537 in 1960, when the crew learned Hurricane Donna was headed their way. Everything aboard was tied down, the crew donned their life jackets, and almost all of the chain attached to the vessel’s 10,000-pound mushroom anchor was let out in preparation for a rough ride. When the hurricane hit on September 12, the anemometer was pegged at the maximum reading of 100 mph, before suddenly dropping to 0 mph when it was blown from the ship. The crew didn’t know if the ship would right itself after a particularly severe roll of 70°, and that was with 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel in the tanks serving as ballast.

After a couple of terrifying hours, the eye of the hurricane passed directly overhead, and the wind became eerily calm. The men took advantage of the break to go on deck and smoke a cigarette before bracing for the other side of the hurricane. Melvin estimates the height of the seas to have been roughly half of the ship’s length. At the top of each wave, the men could tell they were dragging anchor and soon started to worry that they would fall victim to the very shoals they were marking.

The crew amazingly came through the hurricane without any injuries, but the ship was littered with objects, and all the food in the walk-in refrigerator was on the floor in a big heap. When the captain was able to get a Loran fix, the lightship was found to be fourteen miles south of its assigned position. David Melvin said life aboard the lightship ranged from “sheer loneliness and boredom, to all the excitement you could stand.” He wouldn’t want to relive those two years, but wouldn’t take anything in exchange for the experience.

In 1964, a four-legged tower, resembling an oil-drilling platform and outfitted with a light tower, was activated on Frying Pan Shoals. When the tower was completed, WAL 537 circled the platform, gave three blasts of its whistle, and sailed off to prepare for her new assignment at Cape May, New Jersey, as a relief lightship.

The upper portion of the tower was built in Louisiana at a cost of $2 million and then barged to the shoals, where it was lifted by a crane and placed atop a four-legged foundation. The steel legs extend nearly 300 feet below the water to securely anchor the structure to the seabed. The deck that housed the crew has 8,100-square-feet of space and is surmounted by a helicopter pad, which doubled as an exercise and recreation area.

WAL 537 being relieved by light tower
Photograph courtesy U.S. Coast Guard
Frying Pan Lighthouse was automated in 1976 and then deactivated in 2003, having been replaced by a large navigational buoy. The lighthouse was auctioned off by the General Services Administration (GSA) in 2009, with Shipwrecks, Inc., a South Carolina underwater archaeology company, submitting the winning bid of $515,000. After the company failed to close on the deal, a sealed auction was held for the tower. Richard Neal, a software sales engineer from Charlotte, North Carolina, was the high bidder at $11,262, but this fell below the fair market value that the GSA was required to get for the property. Neal was told that he had bunted and made it to first base but was a ways from making it to home. After some haggling, Neal ended up acquiring the tower for $85,000 in August 2010.

Assisted by volunteers, Richard Neal accomplished the following improvements in just two years:

  • Patched one of the 13,000 gallon freshwater holding tanks — It now has over 3,000 gallons of rainwater from the helipad in it making the available total over 15,000 gallons of fresh water! (that’s a lot of hot showers!)
  • Repaired some of the electrical system to power lights, water pump, hot water tank, stove, microwave, washer, and dryer.
  • Installed two small backup generators next to the large Detroit diesel 40KW generator left by the Coast Guard (which still needs repairs). One of the small generators is also a 250 Amp stick welder (Miller), which will allow repairs to the damaged and deteriorating steel (stairs, rails etc.)
  • Returned the signal light to operation with a lesser light source to run when desired (non-navigational purposes).
  • Replaced the non-functional helipad lights with new donated lights (16) and installed new wiring to replace the old wiring.
  • Installed a new one-ton winch to lift bosun’s chair and supplies from vessels.

Arch Embler served sixteen months at Frying Pan Shoals Lighthouse, and during a return to the tower in October 2011 while it was being renovated, he left the following note in the comment book:

As maybe the only person in this journal to have served in the Frying Pan of the Coast Guard era, it means so much to get back to this place. Not only is this a unique place in all the world, but a light also in my own life. I came here, assigned in early 1974 to this duty station as an EN 3, to maintain the three diesel generators. I also came here as a 23-year-old human searching for truth and meaning. A friend from high school had a life changing experience and had explained to me that he had believed in Jesus and his life had changed. I wanted to read the Bible at Frying Pan and decide for myself whether it could be true. I did. I came to the conclusion, after reading Luke and John, that God truly did communicate with humanity through the written word, and had atoned for our sins. I believed in Jesus here at Frying Pan in August 1974, and the path of my life changed. It was [as] if light filled every corner of my life. Because of that, I went to the university I did, where I met my wife, who is precious to me still after 34 years. It seems every good thing in my life today is because of the direction change made at Frying Pan, where the light penetrated the darkness.
Richard Neal is now taking reservations for overnight stays at Frying Pan Tower. While your weekend adventure might not have as dramatic an impact on your life as it did for Arch Embler, it will certainly be an experience you will cherish for years.

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. “Riding out Hurricane Donna on the Frying Pan Lightship,” Ocean Navigator, March/April 2003.
  3. Lighthouses of the Carolinas – A Short History and Guide, Terrance Zepke, 1998.

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