Bald Head Island History

Bald Head Island

The story of Bald Head Island is about many transient people, each one searching for opportunities, and man's struggle to contend with nature. Bald Head Island has shaped North Carolina's economic, maritime, and military history for centuries. 

Bald Head is a barrier island situated at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and home to one of North Carolina's three capes: Cape Fear. Sir Richard Grenville likely named the cape on his expedition through the area in 1585 before establishing the famous colony at Roanoke Island. Gravel feared a submerged sandbar, known due to its shape as Frying Pan Shoals. The shoals extend nearly thirty miles from Cape Fear into the Atlantic Ocean. 

In 1662, William Hilton led a party up the Cape Fear River. The party first mapped Bald Head Island and left livestock onshore. Permanent settlement on the lower Cape Fear followed with the establishment of Brunswick Town in 1726. 

Origins of the name Bald Head

Originally a large, barren sand dune marked the island's southwestern point where the Cape Fear River empties into the Atlantic Ocean. Before lighthouses, mariners would use this sad dune as a navigational aid when searching for the Cape Fear River. A "head" is a high point of land and "bald" described its bareness. 

Battle of the Sandbars

In the autumn of 1718, Bald Head Island witnessed the demise of Stede Bonnet, a notorious buccaneers from the Golden Age of Piracy. Bonnet was known as "The Gentleman Pirate" due to his wealth and social standing as a retired British major and Barbados planter. Bonnet abandoned his Barbados home and family in 1716 and outfitted a sloop named The Revenge. He then began plundering the North American coast, eventually partnering with the infamous pirate Blackbeard. 

On September 26, 1718, pirate hunters from Charleston, South Carolina, under the command of British Colonel William Rhett, caught up with Bonnet at the  mouth of the Cape Fear River. The following day, Rhett and Bonnet engaged one another in what would become known as the "Battle of the Sandbars" since both ships accidentally ran aground during low tide. After five hours of fighting, Rhett's ship floated first, and Bonnet surrendered. Bonnet was taken to Charleston where he was hanged on December 10, 1718. 

The Original Lighthouse

Increasing maritime traffic into the growing port of Wilmington necessitated the construction of a harbor light to distinguish the mouth of the Cape Fear River. By 1789, North Carolina began constructing a lighthouse on ten acres of land donated by Benjamin Smith on Bald Head Island. 

That same year, the newly established Federal government assumed responsibility for constructing Bald Head Island's lighthouse. In 1793, the federal government contracted New Englander Abishai Woodward to complete the Bald Head lighthouse at a cost of $11,359.14. Woodward imported nearly 60,000 bricks and a wrought iron lantern from Philadelphia to complete the lighthouse in December, 1794. 

Henry Long served as the lighthouse's first keeper until he was accidentally shot on a hunting trip. Following Long's death, his wife Rebecca assumed responsibility of maintaining the lighthouse. Rebecca was nominated to serve as the lighthouse keeper, but her nomination was passed over by President Thomas Jefferson. Instead, Sedgwick Springs became keeper of Bald Head lighthouse.

Old Baldy

In 1764, a hurricane opened a second inlet into the Cape Fear River north of Bald Head Island, acculturating the erosion of west beach and endangering the original lighthouse. In 1813, the lighthouse was torn down and the Federal government began accepting bids to construct a new lighthouse. 

After winning the bid, Daniel Way arrived on Bald Head Island in December, 1816. Way constructed Old Baldy's octagonal, 110-foot walls by combining recycled bricks from the original lighthouse with newly-pressed bricks. He covered the bricks with white-washed stucco as protection agains the elements. On April 1, 1817, Way completed Old Baldy and keeper Sedgwick Springs began operations shortly thereafter. 

Like the bricks, Old Baldy's lantern was recycled from the original lighthouse. The lantern was fueled by whale oil lamps employing parabolic reflectors to cast light onto the horizon. These reflectors were patented by Winslow Lewis for lighthouse lanterns in 1812. Old Baldy's lantern received a disastrous performance review by the fleeing U.S. Lighthouse Board in 1852, prompting the lantern's replacement with new technology called Fresnel lenses. 

Fresnel Lenses 

In 1822, French physicist Augustin-Jean Fresnel discovered how to refract, or bend, light. Fresnel invented a lesson that employed bulls-eyes and prisms to refract light into beams projecting parallel with the horizon. France and England quickly installed Fresnel lenses in their lighthouses with much success.

Six orders of Fresnel lenses were established based on the distance between the flame and lens. First-order Fresnel lenses were the most powerful, declining in magnitude to sixth-order Fresnel lenses. 

The United States installed the first Fresnel lens in 1841 at New Jersey's Navesink Lighthouse. Old Baldy received a third-order Fresnel lens in 1856. Confederate troops removed Old Baldy's Fresnel lens during the Civil War and stored the lens in Wilmington throughout the hostilities. Old Baldy resumed operations in 1881 with a fourth-order Fresnel lens. 

The Civil War

Following the Civil War's outbreak, President Abraham Lincoln ordered a blockade of all southern ports to prevent the Confederacy from importing war material. Consequentially, the Port of Wilmington became a strategic artery for equipping the South's armies since Wilmington had a direct railroad line to the Confederate capital of Richmond and two inlets into the harbor. These inlets, separated by Frying Pan Shoals, frustrated the Union Navy's attempts at preventing blockade-running ships laden with military supplies from entering the port. 

Confederate military officials began fortifying the mouth of the Cape Fear River. By the autumn of 1863, construction began on Fort Holmes located on Bald Head Island. Fort Holmes was a 1.7-mile long, sand and palmetto log fort containing five batteries of heavy artillery and seacoast guns. 

Eventually, over 1,200 soldiers, mostly from the 40th North Carolina, manned the first joined by hundreds of enslaved workers and imprisoned Confederate deserters. The fort was still unfinished when it was evacuated following the successful capture of Fort Fisher, just north of Bald Head Island, by Union troops on January 15, 1865. 

Graveyard of the Atlantic 

North Carolina's coastline from Cape Hatteras to Cape Fear is known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic because of its numerous shipwrecks. Approximately 2,000 shipwrecks are found along the coast. These shipwrecks include Spanish privateers, blockade runners, and freighters. 

U.S. Life-Saving Service

In response to numerous devastating shipwrecks, Congress organized the U.S. Life-Saving Service. A life-saving station was constructed on Bald Head Island's near Cape Fear in 1883. 

At Cape Fear Station, keepers directed crews in a 27-foot long, 1,000 pound, manpowered surfboat into the ocean in order to reach marooned ships. Often, the surfmen used a lyle gun to fire a projectile with a life-saving line attached. Once the rope was secured between the wrecked vessel and the shore, a life preserver with pants sewn on, called a breeches buoy, ferried survivors to shore via a pulley on the rope. 

From 1883 to 1914, the Cape Fear Life-Saving Station rescued 642 individuals from 54 shipwrecks without losing a single life. In 1915, the Federal government assigned the life-saving service to the newly-established U.S. Coast Guard. That same year, a coast guard station was constructed on Bald Head Island's south beach, which remained in operation until 1937. 

Cape Fear Light Station

In 1903, the Federal government constructed a third lighthouse on Bald Head Island to warn mariners of Frying Pan Shoals off Cape Fear. This lighthouse stood 150-feet high and, unlike Old Baldy, was a skeleton lighthouse. Skeleton lighthouses were constructed with steel and wrought iron. Atop Cape Fear Lighthouse was a first-order Fresnel lens that was visible for over eighteen miles offshore. The 6,000-pound lens rotated by floating on mercury.

Charles Swan, known affectionately as Capt'n Charlie, served as keeper of the Cape Fear Lighthouse from 1903-1933. His keeper's cottage and two assistant keeper's cottages remain on the island today in an area known as Capt'n Carlie's Station.

In 1958, the federal government replaced Cape Fear Light Station with the newly-constructed Oak Island Lighthouse. Old Baldy had already been decommissioned from service in 1935. Cape Fear Light Station was dynamited and all that remains the lighthouse is its foundation at the Bald Head Island Conservancy. 

Palmetto Island


Influenced by the development of Wrightsville and Carolina Beaches to the north, entrepreneur Thomas Franklin Boyd sought to create a resort on Bald Head in the early 20th century. On January 24, 1914, Boyd purchased Bald Head Island for $45,000 after Brunswick County foreclosed the island due to non-payment of taxes. 

Branding Bald Head as Palmetto Island, Boyd began construction of a pavilion, hotel, and clubhouse. Four subdivisions were surveyed across the island for the construction of beach cottages and plans for a trolley line connecting Wilmington and Bald Head were put onto paper. Even a promotional newsreel was created by Pathe News, which premiered in 1917 at Wilmington's Royal Theatre. 

Abandoning plans for trolley access to the island, Boyd completed a pier and scheduled the river steamer Wilmington to bring tourists to Palmetto Island on March 7, 1925. Yet, Boyd's dreams of Palmetto Island were crushed when a category four hurricane destroyed the island's pier and the Wilmington was relocated to Charleston. Finally, the Great Depression terminated Palmetto Island resort and Boyd died in 1934. 

World War II

War again reached Bald Head Island's shares following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Once America declared war against the Axis Powers, German U-boat submarines began patrolling off North Carolina's coast attacking vessels circumnavigating the state's three capes. 

One such U-boat sank the oil tanker John D. Gill on the night of March 12, 1942, about twenty-four miles east of Cape Fear. Twenty-four crewmen perished in the explosion, and the surviving mariners were taken to Southport for treatment. 

To oppose German landings, the U.S. Coast Guard reactivated Bald Head Island's coast guard station to house mounted horse patrols along Bald Head Island's coast. German shepherds and rottweilers assisted the guardsmen patrolling the beach. 

By the war's conclusion, 397 vessels were sunk by U-boats, including 96 ships off North Carolina's coast, claiming 1,700 lives. The final time war visited Bald Head was in the 1960's when soldiers from Fort Bragg used the island as a training base in preparation for Vietnam. 

The Generator Society

For much of the 20th century, S&W Cafeteria owner Frank Sherrill owned Bald Head Island, which remained undeveloped until Sherrill sold the island to the newly-incorporated Carolina Cape Fear Corporation on June 30, 1970. The corporation promptly began construction of a golf course and marina despite opposition by environmental activists bolstered by North Carolina Bob Scott. 

By 1980, nineteen families built seventeen homes on plots purchased from the corporation. These families, known collectively as the Generator Society, inhabited the island before electricity or paved roads. Electricity arrived on the island in 1981 through an underwater cable. 

Following the 1983 purchase of Bald Head Island by entrepreneur George Mitchell, amenities on the island increased. The Village of Bald Head Island was incorporated as a municipality in 1985, followed by the completion of the village chapel and reopening of Old Baldy Lighthouse in 1987. The Mitchells helped establish the Bald Head Island Conservancy and donated nearly two hundred acres of maritime forest to the North Carolina Coastal Reserve. 

Today, Bald Head Island boasts over 1,200 homes. Thousands visit the island throughout the summer months and just under two hundred people call Bald Head Island home.