Snuffed Out but Not Forgotten: Old Baldy Lighthouse

A few years ago, while climbing Oak Island Lighthouse, which is the newest lighthouse in North Carolina built in 1958, I could see a small island situated just where the Cape Fear River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. On it, barely visible, is the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina, referred to as Old Baldy.

Recently, I put a visit to Old Baldy at the top of my list. I took the 30-minute ferry ride from the Southport marina to Bald Head Island, where Old Baldy has stood since 1817. My goal: to explore the 206-year-old, 110-foot-tall lighthouse and learn how it was constructed, what main purpose it served, and what history surrounded the structure.

Old Baldy
A view of Old Baldy from the island. (Courtesy of Deena Bouknight)

Prior to traveling to the coastal island, I researched logistics. Ferry rides to Bald Head Island leave every hour on the hour and return every hour on the half hour, so timing travel to and fro is important. The 5.86-square-mile island includes a forest and salt marsh preserve, creeks, and prohibits automobiles. Old Baldy is only a short walk from the marina. However, exploring the rest of the island requires a bike or golf cart rental at the marina, unless one plans to hoof the island’s 7-mile perimeter loop.

A discussion with a docent at the Old Baldy Foundation visitor center, a walk through a lighthouse keeper’s cottage museum, as well as follow-up research revealed much about Bald Head Island. Native Indians once inhabited the island, and Giovanni da Verrazano and Sir Walter Raleigh explored it many centuries before Old Baldy was built. In fact, famed pirate Stede Bonnet, a contemporary of Blackbeard, found refuge in the island’s creeks in the early 1700s.

Due to seafaring activity around Bald Head Island during the Revolutionary War, local commissioners (the governing body for the area at the time) determined after the war that a lighthouse was needed. Interestingly, a main obstacle for ships entering and exiting the Cape Fear River, as well as vessels trying to anchor at Bald Head Island, is Frying Pan Shoal, a line of shallow sandbars extending from the southeastern tip of Bald Head Island southward several miles into the Atlantic Ocean. The shoal is named for its shape and caused by silt flowing out of the Cape Fear River. While excellent for fishing, it has proven disastrous for ships as they can run aground. The lighthouse built at the point nearest Frying Pan Shoal helped ships navigate around the danger.

Old Baldy
A view of Bald Head Island and Cape Fear River from the lighthouse. (Courtesy of Deena Bouknight)

The first lighthouse on Bald Head Island was constructed in 1794 and operated until the early 1800s, finally succumbing to erosion. The existing Old Baldy was constructed in 1817 of red bricks and covered in stucco. The octagonal-shaped lighthouse includes 108 steps, five landings, and six windows. The original fixed light, driven by 15 lamps, was fueled by whale oil.

The structure illuminated the waters around Bald Head Island until the Civil War, when the Confederacy snuffed out all the lighthouses along the southern coast of the United States. The Confederates used the waterways around the island to ferry supplies via blockade runners.

Old Baldy remained a U.S. government lighthouse station until 1935, when it was decommissioned as an official navigational aid. It was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

Old Baldy
Entrance to Old Baldy Lighthouse. (Courtesy of Deena Bouknight)

While it was in use, lighthouse keepers whitewashed Old Baldy every two years. However, it has been left to the elements and reveals exposed bricks and thinning stucco.

A climb up Old Baldy’s swirling, worn wooden staircase to the lookout tower conjures imaginings of numerous keepers ascending and descending for generations. Near the top is a traditional ladder to enter the tower. Only a few souls can fit in the tower, which is no longer protected by glass.

Old Baldy
Descending the stairs of Old Baldy. (Courtesy of Deena Bouknight)

Its views present an awesome expanse of salt marshes, meandering brackish creeks, and large tidal birds, such as great blue herons and white ibis. Old Baldy is indeed worth the drive, ferry ride, walk, and climb to experience history off the beaten path.

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