Bald Head Island Lighthouse, known affectionately as “Old Baldy,” is the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina. Local residents and visitors have come to love its aged and mottled look, but the harsh reality is that the tower has been in need of urgent care for some years. The Old Baldy Foundation, the tower’s steward since 1985, is seeing to it that this treasure is properly preserved.
Old Baldy is one of 11 tapered octagonal towers that were built by the new federal government between 1792 and 1817. The present lighthouse was constructed in 1817 to replace an earlier (1794) tower that was threatened by erosion. It was the last of the early federal octagonal and the only one constructed of brick. It turned out that the soft red bricks used in its construction were prone to rapid deterioration, so the tower was later coated with stucco. The tower was regularly whitewashed when keepers lived at the site, and that process protected the stucco.
But the lighthouse has not been active as an aid to navigation since 1935, and it’s been many years since it was whitewashed. This has left the stucco vulnerable to the effects of the weather. Much of the stucco has chipped and fallen off, exposing the brick below. Earlier preservation efforts concentrated on patching the stucco
using mixtures of varying strengths and colors, adding to the tower’s distinctive blotchy look.
At one point, Portland cement was used as the patching material. The hard cement trapped moisture that eventually caused the underlying bricks to spall and turn to dust. Additional moisture was leaking into the tower from the lantern.
In 2001, DCF Engineering, Inc. of Cary, NC, conducted an engineering study and identified steps that could be taken to decrease moisture buildup and to repair the stucco. Some measures were taken immediately, such as the removal of vegetation that was touching the tower.
A more recent inspection by International Chimney Corp. of Buffalo, New York, suggested that the best approach would be to remove all the exterior stucco, replacing it with new material. The Old Baldy Foundation is looking into both approaches, knowing that popular opinion would prefer that the lighthouse ought to retain its blotchy look.
Since 2000, the Old Baldy Foundation has been charging an admission fee of $3 per person for visits to the lighthouse. These fees and profits from the gift shop totaling $200,000 were eventually set aside for the first phase of restoration work. Workers from International Chimney spent much working at the lighthouse February and March this year. They made many safety improvements inside the tower, and weatherized the lantern to reduce leaking. They also inspected the exterior and interior stucco.
A complete restoration has been estimated at more than $1 million. The Old Baldy Foundation hopes to raise the needed funds through private donations and government grants. When the work will be completed, it’s possible that Old Baldy will no longer have its familiar blotchy appearance. It may revert to its original white exterior.
More importantly, the tower will be in excellent structural condition. “No one wants to see Old Baldy become unsafe to climb or crumble to the ground,” says Ann Mills, executive director of the Old Baldy Foundation. “I have confidence in this community, the state and the federal government that through private donations and grants, Old Baldy will be around for generations to come.”
A replica of the 1850s keeper’s cottage, completed in 2000, now serves as the Smith Island Museum (Bald Head Island is actually part of a series of interconnected islands known as Smith Island), commemorating more than 400 years of the Cape Fear region’s maritime history. The Old Baldy Lighthouse and Smith Island Museum are open every day except Monday in the summer, with shorter hours in the winter. Call (910) 457-7481 or visit www.oldbaldy.org on the web for more information.
This story appeared in the
July 2005 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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