The Old Baldy Foundation operates the Old Baldy Lighthouse and Smith Island Museum of History on Bald Head Island, North Carolina. Hiking to the historic lighthouse and soaking up the breathtaking views offers a sub-tropical destination slightly off the beaten path. Discover the colorful maritime history of Bald Head Island and the 200 year old lighthouse at the Smith Island Museum.
Tickets to the museum are economical, and offer a fun-filled educational adventure for visitors of all ages. Visitors can purchase “Historic Island Tours” tickets and ride the ferry past Civil War forts, the lighthouse and historical monuments while listening to the guide weave tales about pirates and shipwrecks.
Bald Head Island was once inhabited by explorers, Native Americans, fishermen and pirates. Before Spanish and French exploration expeditions “discovered” the Cape Fear Coast, fishermen and Native Americans lived off the bounty of the river and island forested areas. The colony founded by Sir Walter Raleigh mentions “Cape Feare” in a ship log in 1585. Landgrave Thomas Smith, a successful businessman from Charleston, was granted the island by North Carolina territory officials in 1713.
The “Gentleman Pirate,” Stede Bonnet bought a ship he named Revenge, staffed it a gun-toting crew and set sail for the Cape Fear coast. The plundering of pirates became common place along the coastal communities of North Carolina, with the infamous Blackbeard making frequent appearances. Bonnet, even after a pledge to reform his wicked ways in front of Governor Charles Eden, fell from grace once again and was publicly hanged in 1718.
The initial lighthouse was erected as a beacon to passing ships in 1795. Due to erosion along the southwestern point of the island, the structure was taken down with a new lighthouse erected in a more desirable spot in 1817. The new shining light was dubbed “Old Baldy” and could illuminate further than the original structure, aiding shoals far off the cape. The lighthouse tower featured a 110 foot tall tower with layered walls at the base to safeguard the structure from the elements. The light was powered by whale oil and a thick wick.
In 1834 the whale oil and wick lamp was upgraded to a signal which flashed a rotating red light every thirty seconds. During the Civil War years the light dimmed, but was once again offering a ray of light in the darkness by 1879. The newly invented Fresnel lens offered parallel rays of light, offering a steady pattern for ship captains use for navigational purposes. By 1903 the lighthouse beam was changed to a fixed position. In 1935 the lighthouse was taken out of service, but was used a radio tower for the United States Coast Guard. In 1990 the lighthouse keeper and generator houses were restored.
During the war between the states, Bald Head Island was home to Fort Holmes. The Confederacy built an fortifications of connecting earthen mounds near the river. An estimated 18 mounted guns and soldiers were used to protect Fort Holmes. Although there is no record of any major Civil War battles being fought at Fort Holmes, the location did deter Union forces from passing through the mouth of the river to reach areas further south. After Fort Fisher fell into Federalist hands, soldiers abandoned Fort Holmes.
United States Lifesaving Serviced
The United States Congress created the U.S. Lifesaving Service in 1870. The group was tasked with aiding the growing number of victims of shipwrecks along coastal areas of the country. The Cape Fear Lifesaving Station patrolled the island’s coast twenty-four hours a day to spot distressed ships. When a ship was in danger of sinking, the sailors rowed a “surfboat” out into the often choppy waters to rescue the crew. In 1937, after the Coast Guard built a station on nearby Oak Island, the Bald Head Island lifesaving group was deactivated. During the years of World War II, mounted soldiers used the abandoned lifesaving building as a headquarters while on patrols looking for German submarines. At the end of World War II, a sawmill company used the area to harvest dogwood trees. The building was lost in a fire in late 1968.
“Old Baldy” was awarded a spot on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. A non-profit group formed under the name Old Baldy Foundation formed in 1985. The group’s goals of preservation, restoration and education couldn’t be realized until they raised over $125,000 to make the structure safe to enter. Over a decade of planning, hard labor and fund-raising was required before the facility could open its’ doors to visitors. The site includes three “keepers'” cottages, the museum and a gift shop.
Exhibits and Events
Browse lighthouse artifacts, period furnishing and island memorabilia at the museum. A children’s area offers hands-on exhibits and learning activities. Special events often held at the museum cover topics such as pirates, Native Americans and related island lore.