Many visitors travel to Bald Head Island in southeastern North Carolina each year to enjoy the natural beauty of this maritime island situated where the Cape Fear River meets the Atlantic Ocean. A prominent landmark on the island is “Old Baldy,” one of the state’s most recognized lighthouses. Although this lighthouse is the oldest standing along the North Carolina coast, the island’s rich lighthouse history predates construction of this famous structure in 1817.
In the year 1784, the North Carolina General Assembly passed a law which established several rules for navigation on the Cape Fear River from Negroehead Point to the sea. The law set rates for pilotage and established several regulations concerning the pilots who guided vessels into the river. It also levied a duty of six pence per ton on incoming vessels to raise money for a lighthouse.
The law stipulated that the structure was to be built “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.” The commissioners took this instruction literally, and by 1789 were constructing a lighthouse and keeper’s quarters on the western edge of Bald Head Island precariously close to the point where the Cape Fear River met the sea. The commissioners obtained ten acres of land for the lighthouse on “Cape Island” from Benjamin Smith, who would later gain notoriety for his service as governor of North Carolina.
Construction of the lighthouse was not without its problems. The commissioners contracted with Thomas Withers for the delivery of 200,000 bricks for the lighthouse. However, due to some unfortunate circumstances, which Withers described as “the stranding of some Vessels, sickness and other fortuitous circumstances,” he was unable to deliver the bricks as promised. Thus, the General Assembly granted him an extra allowance for more bricks to complete the project.
In November of 1789, after North Carolina joined the United States, the lighthouse project came under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Treasury Department. In the year 1790, the state officially ceded the ten-acre tract with the lighthouse to the Federal government. Congress appropriated $4000 to complete the lighthouse in 1792, but numerous delays plagued the effort. Historian David Stick notes that Abishai Woodward, a carpenter from Connecticut, was employed to build the structure, and George Hooper of Wilmington, a “Commissioner of Navigation,” oversaw construction.
By December 5, 1794, the lighthouse was finished and ready for operations. The total bill for the project came out to $11,359.14, more than $7000 greater than the amount originally appropriated.
In the summer of 1795, the U.S. Treasury Department ran the following announcement several times in the Wilmington newspapers to inform the public about the lighthouse on Bald Head Island.
CAPE FEAR LIGHT HOUSE is situated near Bald Head, a noted bluff on Cape Fear Island, at the mouth of Cape Fear River, on which river is built the town of Wilmington, in North Carolina. The iron lantern is ten feet nine inches in diameter, and about fifteen feet nine inches in height, from the floor to the top of the roof. It was first lighted on the night of 23d December 1794
The light house bears W.N.W.—From the point of the Cape four miles distant; and N.W. by N. from the extremity of Frying Pan Shoals, distant eight leagues.
In sailing from the Eastward, bring the light to bear N.N.E. and then steer in North, which will carry a vessel clear off the shoal, and bring her a short distance off the bar. Observe, however, if it is in the night, out to come into less than seven fathom water.—If there is a necessity of sailing over the bar, without a pilot, bring the house to bear North, or N. half East, and steer directly in for it, until the vessel is close in with the beach, and then for the fort, which bears from thence about North, and is plainly in sight.
The channel over the bar is direct, and of a good width.
It may be farther necessary to observe to strangers, especially in a dark night, it is most prudent to steer west in lat. 33,20, or 25 at most, until they shoal in their water to seven or eight fathoms. By doing this, they may be sure of being to the westward of the bar.
In 1798, Edward Furlong’s American Coast Pilot included directions for mariners using the lighthouse to enter the mouth of the Cape Fear. “The Light-House, which was erected in December 1794, bears N.N. W. 4 miles from the point of Cape Fear, and 24 miles N.W. b. N. from the extremity of Frying-Pan Shoal.”
On July 24, 1806, an unknown artist sketched a waterspout at the mouth of the Cape Fear, just off Bald Head. He noted that it was one of eleven that were observed in the river that day between 1 and 2 p.m. Thanks to his desire to chronicle this natural phenomena, the artist left the only known drawing of the original lighthouse on Bald Head Island.
Later that same year, tragedy struck the old Bald Head Lighthouse. Historian Stick wrote in his book Bald Head, that light keeper Henry Long was accidentally killed in a hunting accident in October of 1806.
Since the lighthouse was constructed so close to the edge of the water, it was only a matter of time before the structure was threatened by the encroaching sea. By 1813, erosion of the sandy land along the base of the tower made it necessary for Treasury authorities to tear down the first lighthouse along the Cape Fear.
Author’s Note: John Hairr is a historian who hails from Harnett County, North Carolina. He is the author of several books, including Florida Lighthouses, which is available from the Lighthouse Depot.
This story appeared in the
June 2001 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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