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 Bald Head, NC    
Lighthouse accessible by ferry.Lighthouse open for climbing.Interior open or museum on site.Fee charged.Photogenic lighthouse or setting.Lighthouse appeared in movie.
Description: At the confluence of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean lies unique Bald Head Island, an oasis from the rigors of the mainland. As you arrive on the island 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, affectionately known as Old Baldy, which rises above the surrounding live oaks and welcomes visitors to the island.

Early view of tower and dwelling
Bald Head Island is actually part of Smith Island, a collection of islands crisscrossed by creeks and inlets, and received its name from the denuded dunes on its south beach, which resemble a bald head. Extending twenty-eight miles from the southeast end of the island are Frying Pan Shoals, a collection of shifting sandbars, obscured by a thin covering of water. Early sailors dubbed the area Cape Fear, no doubt a reference to the feeling evoked when navigating near the hazardous shoals.

A ten-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. In 1792, Congress appropriated $4,000 to complete the lighthouse that had been started by North Carolina before it became part of the United States. Work on the lighthouse was overseen by Abisha Woodward, who would later build two lighthouses in Connecticut: New London Harbor and Falkner's Island. Bald Head Island Lighthouse, which was first activated on December 23, 1794, directed traffic to the Cape Fear River and the growing port of Wilmington, located several miles upstream. Henry Long was hired as the first keeper of the lighthouse and served until October 1806, when he was killed by his son-in-law in a hunting accident.

Twelve residents of the area signed the following petition that was sent to President Thomas Jefferson on December 31, 1806, recommending the appointment of Sedgwick Springs as keeper:

We the subscribers resident Citizens in the District and town of Wilmington being informed that Sedgwick Springs wishes to become a Keeper of the Light House on Bald Head (provided it should be thought the widow of the late Henry Long, inadequate to the safe keeping thereof) beg leave Hereby to Recommend the said Sedgwick Springs as a fit and proper Person to take charge and keep up the said Light—He being an old Inhabitant of the town of Wilmington a Sober Industrious Citizen having been employed for these eight Years last past and now is an Inspector of the Revenue in which Office he has ever behaved himself as a dilligent and Carefull Officer and to our knowledge conducted himself as a truly honest man in all his dealings.

Due to severe erosion along the river, the demolition of the original lighthouse was ordered in 1813, and by 1817, the replacement lighthouse, “Old Baldy,” was built farther inland and lit, for just under $16,000. A stone plaque above the entrance identifies the builder as Daniel S. Way, and the foundry for the lantern room as R. Cochran. Still the oldest in North Carolina, the octagonal brick and plaster tower stands ninety feet tall and was originally equipped with an array of lamps and reflectors. In 1849, a new lantern room was installed atop the tower and the old lighting apparatus, consisting of eighteen lamps and sixteen-inch reflectors, was replaced with fifteen brass lamps and twenty-one-inch reflectors. The lantern room is offset from the center of the tower, and as technology improved, it received a third-order Fresnel lens in 1855. At its base, the tower is thirty-six feet wide and at its top fourteen-and-a-half feet wide, while the walls are five feet thick at the base and taper to two-and-a-half feet at the top. The rectangular stairway leading up the inside of the tower is made of Carolina yellow pine.

Bald Head Lighthouse in 1893
The original keeper’s dwelling, built on the west side of Old Baldy, was eventually lost to erosion. The replacement was a one-and-a-half-story cottage, erected in the 1850s 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, which was being used as an office for the "Palmetto Island" development, was also lost to fire.

In 1836, Captain Henry D. Hunter visited the lighthouse and reported: "The keeper is an old revolutionary soldier and is unable from sickness to give the lighthouse his constant personal attention. The light, however, shows well from a distance." Keeper Sedgwick Springs was eighty years old at the time of the report and passed away the following year after having being in charge of the light for thirty years, the longest tenure of any keeper of Bald Head Lighthouse.

Some problems with 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.

Bald Head Light was discontinued in 1866 when the screwpile Federal Point Lighthouse was built eight miles upstream, near the present Fort Fisher ferry landing. After Federal Point Lighthouse was deactivated in 1879 upon the closure of New Inlet Channel by the Engineer Department, Old Baldy was returned to service along with a beacon on the nearby beach, which formed a range to help mariners safely enter the river.

On March 3, 1883, the characteristic of Bald Head Lighthouse was changed from fixed white to a red flash every thirty seconds through the installation of a new fourth-order lens. Later that year, a 150-foot-long stone jetty was built to protect the tower from erosion, and this work likely saved the tower from being toppled by a hurricane that struck in September 1883. Keeper James H. Dosher reported that an earthquake shook the tower for ten seconds at 9:50 p.m. on August 31, 1886, breaking the glass chimney in the lamp. The shaking was accompanied by a hiss and and rumbling noise in the earth.

On March 8, 1893, the characteristic of the light was changed from a red flash every thirty seconds to a white flash with the same period.

In 1898, Congress authorized the construction of a 159-foot, skeleton tower, named Cape Fear Lighthouse, on the southeastern end of Bald Head Island, where it could mark Frying Pan Shoals. Cape Fear Lighthouse served from 1903 to 1958, when Oak Island Lighthouse, located on the mainland, became operational.

After the completion of the new Cape Fear Lighthouse, Old Baldy was changed to a fourth-order fixed light and then 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 donated to the Old Baldy Foundation, organized to restore North Carolina’s eldest treasure.

Aerial view of Bald Head Lighthouse from 1968 postcard
Restoration of Bald Head Lighthouse included placing a new cooper roof on the off-center lantern room and patching up the layer of stucco that covers the brick tower. Over the years, patchwork repairs have led to the unique mottled look of the lighthouse. Visitors can now scale the 112 restored wooden stairs to reach the top of the tower 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.

In 2009, the Old Baldy Foundation purchased remnants of Cape Fear's first-order Fresnel lens that had been on display outside an antique dealer in Wilmington, North Carolina. The lens was crated up, transported to the island, and placed in storage. The foundation now owns the entire lens framework, the base on which the lens turned, and about 30% of the lens prisms, including seven bull's-eye panels, and is looking to acquire any other pieces that are privately owned. In 2010, the lens pedestal was dismantled and cleaned, and future plans call for the construction of an exhibit building near Old Baldy so the historic lens can be displayed.

Head Keepers: Henry Long (1794 – 1806), Sedgwick (Shadrack) Springs (1807 – 1837), Bryan Morse (1837 – 1848), Francis Morse (1848 – 1853), William R. Sellers (1853 – 1857), James R. Flowers (1857 – 1859), T. M. Thompson (1859 - ), John Bell (1865 – 1866), James S. Sanders (1866), Joseph A. Bell (1879 – 1881), John R. Newton (1881 – 1882), Asa Ross (1882), James Henry Dosher (1882 – at least 1913).

Photo Gallery: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

References

  1. Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board, various years.
  2. Lighthouses of the Carolinas – A Short History and Guide, Terrance Zepke, 1998.
  3. Old Baldy Foundation website.
  4. Bald Head Island website.
  5. “New Museum Recaptures the Past,” Lighthouse Digest, August 2000.

Location: Bald Head Island is located three miles offshore from Southport at the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
Latitude: 33.87349
Longitude: -78.00047

For a larger map of Bald Head Lighthouse, click the lighthouse in the above map or get a map from: Mapquest.


Travel Instructions: Bald Head Island can be visited via a 20-minute ferry ride from Southport. Once on the island, Bald Head Lighthouse can be easily reached on foot. If you prefer to explore more of the island, you can rent golf carts from Island Passage ((910) 457-4944) to tour the island and visit Old Baldy and the remains of the Cape Fear Lighthouse.

Old Baldy Foundation operates a museum in a replica of the 1850s keeper's dwelling adjacent to the lighthouse. For a fee, visitors are allowed to climb the tower. Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sundays. Informative Historic Island Tours, which include a visit to the lighthouse, are available by calling (910) 457-5003.

The lighthouse is owned by the Old Baldy Foundation. Grounds/dwelling/tower open.

Find the closest hotels to Bald Head Lighthouse

Notes from a friend:

Kraig writes:
The brick oil house located near Old Baldy has in recent years been serving as an outhouse. With new facilities available nearby, the historic edifice will hopefully soon play a different role at the station.

Bald Head Island plays the role of Hampton Island in the movie "Weekend at Bernie's," and Bald Head Island Lighthouse can be seen in the background during several scenes filmed near the ferry landing. Close-up views of the interior and exterior of the lighthouse are also shown when two of the main characters in the movie, Richard and Gwen, climb to the top of the lighthouse.


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Pictures on this page copyright Kraig Anderson, Old Baldy Foundation , used by permission.