Lighthouses, Lifesavers, and Soldiers
The first lighthouse on Smith Island was the Bald Head Light, completed in 1795. It was on the banks of the river at the island’s southwest point and was quickly threatened by erosion. It was pulled down in 1813 and a new lighthouse was commissioned to replace it. In 1817, Daniel S. Way built the new lighthouse, “Old Baldy,” for $15,915.45. Old Baldy was always intended to light the mouth of the Cape Fear River and was never intended to illuminate the Frying Pan Shoals off the Cape.
Old Baldy was built of soft red bricks, many of which were reused from the first lighthouse, then covered with a plaster mixture of sand and lime. The 110 foot tower is an octagon with walls five feet thick at the base. During its active life, the lighthouse was whitewashed on a regular basis. The lanthorn, or lantern room, made of iron, copper, and glass, came from the first lighthouse as well. It is offset to allow for more support and to accommodate the keeper, who had to clean and make repairs to the outside. The original fixed light was powered by 15 lamps. It was built as a parabolic reflector with hollow wick lamps, fueled by whale oil, and arranged on a metal rack.
Over the years, Old Baldy’s light changed as a signal. In 1834, a new mechanism was installed to flash red with a 30-second delay. During the Civil War, the light was darkened but relit in 1879 with new Fresnel lenses, a revolutionary design the produced powerful parallel beams of light. In 1893, the light was changed to white and new lenses installed. In 1903, it became a “fourth order” fixed light. Old Baldy was deactivated in 1935, and for a brief period served as a Coast Guard radio tower before being abandoned to the elements.
During the Civil War, from 1863 to 1865, Bald Head Island was the sight of Fort Holmes, Confederate earthen fortifications built near the mouth of the river. Fort Holmes mounted between 15 and 18 guns and stationed more than a thousand. The earthworks were built largely by slaves from area plantations. Although no major battles were fought here, Fort Holmes was a successful deterrent to the Union army because of its strategic location. It was abandoned by the Confederacy after the fall of Fort Fisher at New Inlet.
The US Lifesaving Service was established by Congress in the 1870s in response to the numerous shipwreck fatalities occurring off the shores of the nation. Smith Island’s first service was called the Cape Fear Lifesaving Station and was located on the east beach, a mile above the Cape. After it was lost to beach erosion in 1914, a new station was built on the south beach. Life savers patrolled the shore day and night, watching for signs of ships in distress. In rough weather or calm seas, they would row their surfboat out to wrecks and assist survivors back to dry land. The Cape Fear Lifesaving Station was deactivated in1937 after the Coast Guard established the Oak Island Station. The abandoned station was used by a mounted horse patrol during World War II, and later by employees of a sawmill company culling the island’s dogwood trees. The building was lost to fire in 1968.