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Smith Island in the 20th Century

In the early 1900s, a sizable community of surfmen, lightkeepers, river pilots and their families was established on Bald Head Island.  They lived in small cottages built by their own hands or by the federal government. In addition to harvesting the sea’s bounty, they tended small gardens and kept livestock to help subsidize their diets.  At one time, there were so many children living on the island a small school was held and taught by a lightkeeper’s wife.

At the turn of the century, Congress heeded the call for a more visible light station on the Cape Fear and the Frying Pan Shoals.  The Cape Fear Light Station was completed in 1903.  It was an open metal skeleton supporting a central concrete tower and had a light radius of 18 1/2 miles.  In addition, the government built a brick generator and three keeper’s cottages.  The first keeper, Captain Charles Swan, was keeper for 30 years and raised nine children on the island.  Although the lighthouse was destroyed by the Coast Guard in 1958 after the Oak Island Light was established, the keeper’s houses and generator house were restored in the 1990s.

In 1916, T.F. Boyd of Hamlet, NC, purchased Smith Island with plans to promote the island as a vacation destination.  He renamed it “Palmetto Island,” built a beach boardwalk, pavilion, and an 8 room hotel.  Boyd managed to sell 40 lots and cleared several streets before he lost the island in foreclosure for back taxes during the Great Depression.

In 1938, the island’s new owner, Frank Sherrill, announced he had big development plans for Smith Island.  However, it wasn’t until 1964 when the public learned how extensive those plans were.  Grandiose plans imagined a filled in tidal marsh with canals cut through to accommodate nearly 100,000 residents.  High rise hotels and restaurants lined the beaches.  An industrial park, airport, and an amusement park were included.  Sherrill’s plans could only be fulfilled if the federal government built a four lane causeway from Ft. Fisher to Smith Island.  A conservation and court battle erupted between state agencies and development proponents.  Sherrill eventually abandoned his plans.  In 1970, Carolina Cape Fear Corporation purchased the island and announced their plans for development.  Heeding the protests of invasive development, a much more modest plan evolved.  It included only 2,800 acres containing a golf course, marina, and approximately 4,800 housing units.  In addition, three fourths of Smith Island, its marshes, the east beach, Buff, Battery, and Striking Islands were deeded to the state of North Carolina for conservation.  Since 1983, the island has been under development by Bald Head Island Limited.