Thirty miles off the coast of North Carolina, due south of Bald Head Island, lies Frying Pan Tower, a decommissioned offshore light station and arguably the most adventurous restoration project in recent history. But it’s not your traditional preservation project – it doubles as a vacation destination. Assisted by a constant stream of volunteers, a 2,000-pound industrial winch, and the occasional helicopter, owner Richard Neal has transformed Frying Pan Tower from a forgotten hulk into a working bed and breakfast. For those daring enough, the trip offers the chance to live like a light-keeper, catch a few fish, or simply count falling stars.
The Frying Pan Shoals occupy a bit of a mythic place in the history of the North Carolina coast. The southern boundary of the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the shoals are a series of sandbars running from the tip of Bald Head out more than 28 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. First mapped in 1738, the area has gone by Frying Pan Shoals since at least the late 1700s, named so after the shoals’ shape – like a long-handled frying pan.
The area is famous both for the threat it poses to navigation – dozens of ships have wrecked on the shoals, and boats still run aground today – and for its world class sport fishing. The first lightship showed up in 1854 and for the next 110 years, interrupted only by the Civil War and World War II, a series of lightships were stationed in the area to aid navigation. Not until 1964 was a permanent fixture installed.
Frying Pan Tower is part of the last generation of manned lighthouses. For fifteen years, from 1964 to 1979, a skeleton crew of Coast Guardsmen manned the light. After that, it was fully automated, and in 2003 it was deactivated and replaced by a discus buoy, “Station 41013.” That’s where things get interesting.
Talk about what to do with the tower began in the mid ‘90s, after a series of hurricanes damaged the tower. At that point, plans centered on demolishing the structure or converting it to an offshore marine lab. Finally, in 2009, the government landed on a solution when the tower was sold to a dive operator for over a half-million dollars. The operator intended to use it as a dive outpost and research lab, but when they couldn’t raise the money to pay the bill, things were back at square one. Enter Richard Neal.
In 2010, Richard was browsing the General Services Administration’s auction website when he stumbled onto the posting for Frying Pan Tower. The tower looked like a grownup version of the childhood tree house that sat on stilts in his parents’ backyard as a kid. Never expecting to actually win the auction, he put in a bid. After some negotiation, the structure was sold to him that August for $85,000. Because of the rules governing GSA auctions, he bought the tower sight unseen.
As Richard describes it, “I basically bought myself a big childhood tree house.”
At that point, he had no exact plans about what to do with the tower. Ideas ranged from renting it out to dive operators to hanging on for a while and selling it to someone else at a profit. But when he entered the tower building for the first time, that all changed.
“When I opened that lever-locked door, it smelled like 1960. It was like walking into history; nothing had changed … it’s a giant toy box, full of all this fun guy stuff.”
“It was also a mess. Stuff was everywhere. People had been coming in and rummaging over the years, and the Coast Guard had left a lot behind – there was an entire drawer full of 1,000 watt incandescent light bulbs used to power the light.”
Soon after, he decided to move forward with the idea of a bed and breakfast, a project that would take a lot of work but would let them preserve the working history of the light and give more people the opportunity to experience life offshore.
“I walked in completely ignorant of the history, but as soon as I started to see how the tower was put together – everything is steel, everything is made to last – preserving it became important.”
Richard is quick to point out that he is by no means independently wealthy, and so the challenge of restoring the tower lies not just in the mechanics of getting everything done but also funding the supplies and manpower. But after word got around with friends, family, and those in the coastal communities nearby, the excitement grew. Volunteers and donations were soon pouring in.
“If I was a wealthy man, I’d never ask,” Richard says. “But I’m a regular Joe. Nearly everything so far has been donated, from the recycled steel used to replace the spiral staircase, to the station’s drinking water, to the lights on the helipad.”
The donations are more remarkable given the fact that they’re not tax-deductible. Richard had originally intended to operate the bed and breakfast as a not-for-profit, but the tower’s location complicated that. Frying Pan Tower is so far offshore that it’s technically not in the United States.
“Probably one third of our guests are volunteers: men and women. It’s been amazing. We’ve spent a lot of weekends with groups … restoring electricity, replacing the spiral staircase, chipping rust. You can find yourself working inside or hanging upside down under the tower.”
“We’ve worked hard to maintain the utilitarian feel of the station. At this point, we’re at least 50 percent through the restoration process. Most of the major work has been done, and now we have a lot of exterior projects. And of course, this far out on the ocean, there’s always maintenance.”
Though restoration continues, the tower is now open to paying guests, which Richard points out are most necessary to the restoration process.
“We’ve had a lot donations, and I’ve used my own money, more than my wife sometimes likes, but guests are most important to making this work.”
In fact, 82 percent of the money received last year went toward purchasing supplies for restoration. The rest went to transportation and food for volunteers. There are no employees.
For the guests, the experience is bound to be memorable.
Two-night, three-day packages are $498, with all room and board included. Visitors are responsible for arranging their own transportation out to the tower. A large percentage combine the trip with a fishing charter, and the local captains then take the party out to the tower. For those who don’t fish, an out-and-back can be arranged with a guide, and if you are in a hurry, a helicopter will drop you off right on the tower helipad.
Once you’re there, it’s total solitude.
“There’s nothing like seeing the sun set, or rise if you’re an early bird, from the deck of the tower in the middle of the ocean,” Richard says. “And at night it’s as dark as dark gets.”
“All day you can look down and see schools of fish: Mahi-Mahi … there are giant African Pompano. You see sharks all the time.”
“We were changing a flag one day at the top of the tower, 130 feet up in the air, when I saw a billfish chasing two or three ribbonfish down below. The excitement was bringing up barracuda. Then the sharks came. After a few minutes of chasing the fish around, the billfish finally got one and dove back down. It was like something out of a nature video. You never know what you’re going to see out here.”
High above the Atlantic Ocean, the light itself still functions. To avoid confusing ships, the light is not run constantly, but Richard and the crew are happy to turn it on and demonstrate to guests how it works.
With the tower turning 50 this year, the restoration to working order seems fitting, and when talking about the project, it is clear that Richard sees himself as more caretaker of the tower than owner.
“The shoals and the tower are part of the culture of the region. I’m not sure what the long-term plan looks like, but we have a chance to bring the tower back to what it was, for future generations.”
For now, that means the work continues.
Editor’s Note: To learn more about the Frying Pan Lighthouse you can visit their web site at www.fptower.com.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2014 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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