Old Baldy Lighthouse

Old Baldy was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.  A Federal octagon lighthouse, it is  North Carolina's oldest standing lighthouse. Today, Old Baldy is open for climbers to travel to the top of the lighthouse and experience a piece of North Carolina history. After climbing 108 stairs to the lathorn room, you will see unparalleled views of the surrounding waterways. 

Keeper's Cottage (The Smith Island Museum of History)

Built in 2000, this is an historic replica of the cottage in which the keepers' lived in between the 1850s-1880s. The museum features the living room, bedroom and the kitchen of the Keeper's Cottage replica. Learn about lighthouse keepers, pirates, surfmen, and more in this authentic recreation of a 1850's era house. Along with exhibits that display historic information and artifacts, the museum features an audio tour which will guide you through the Keeper's Cottage and to the lighthouse. 

Old Baldy Gift Shop (in the Cottage)

Here you'll find just the right gift, souvenir, or whimsy.  Everything purchased at this store helps to support Old Baldy and the historic preservation efforts of the Foundation. 

Fort Holmes 

During the Civil War, Old Baldy was contained in a part of an earthen works complex known as Fort Holmes. Over 1,100 Confederate soldiers, and other people essential to running the fort were camped on this and much of the surrounding property. To see the remains of the sand curtains, Battery No. 4, and a magazine bunkers used to defend the Cape Fear and blockade runners from the Union Navy, walk down Lighthouse Wynd to the historical marker and boardwalk. 

The Story of the Old Baldy Lighthouse

The Story of the Old Baldy Lighthouse

Old Baldy is the oldest standing lighthouse in North Carolina. It has maintained its original form and location for over 187 years. The most important purpose of Old Baldy was to mark the Cape Fear River entrance for the maritime sailors.  It was never intended as a light for Frying Pan Shoals.  Old Baldy was built in 1817 of soft red bricks covered with stucco.  In the early days the lighthouse keeper would white wash Old Baldy every two years. When Old Baldy was deactivated in 1935 the lighthouse was abandoned. The white wash protected the stucco. When it was discontinued large pieces of the stucco began to fall off the lighthouse. Occasionally someone would come along and patch the lighthouse with new stucco; however, they did not use the same stucco as was used in 1817.  Today Old Baldy looks like a patch work quilt of different stuccos.  In 1817 Old Baldy was completely white.


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 has changed as a signal. In 1834, a new lighting mechanism was installed to flash red with a 30-second delay. During the Civil War, the light was temporarily darkened and was relit in 1879. In 1893, the flashing light of Old Baldy was changed to white and new lamps were installed. In1903, Old Baldy became a fourth order fixed light when the Cape Fear Lighthouse Station was activated. Old Baldy was kept as an active light station by the government until 1935, and was even used as a radio beacon in World War II. In 1988, the historic light was relit but no longer serves as an “official” navigational aid.


Old Baldy by the Numbers:

  • 108 steps
  • 5 landings
  • A ladder into the lanthorn (lantern room)
  • 110 feet tall
  • Walls 5’ thick at the base
  • Octagon base is 36’ wide
  • Octagon top is 14.6’ wide
  • One door
  • Six windows
  • 200th Birthday in 2017

Smith Island in the 20th Century

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.

Lighthouses, Lifesavers & Soldiers

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.


Early Island History

A destination for Native Americans, explorers, pirates, soldiers and sailors, fishermen and farmers for hundreds of years, Bald Head Island has evolved into a unique destination for vacationers, historians, and artists.

Smith Island’s cultural heritage began more than 400 years ago.  Long before French and Spanish explorers discovered Cape Fear, Native Americans were fishing and hunting in the bountiful waters and forests of Bald Head Island.  Midden sites (shell mounds created by harvesting oysters and other shellfish) have been found near the creeks.

In 1524, explorer Giavanni da Verrazano reached what is thought to be the Cape Fear River.  In 1526, Lucas Vasques de Ayllon, a wealthy resident of Hispaniola, sailed with 3 large ships and 300 passengers up a river he called the Jordan.  Modern historians agree this river was the Cape Fear.  Sir Walter Raleigh’s colonists mention the island in their logbook of 1585: “We were in great danger of a Wreake on a Breache called Cape of Feare.”  None of the attempts to colonize the Cape Fear area during the 1600s was successful.  In 1713, the authorities in North Carolina granted the island complex to Landgrave Thomas Smith, a wealthy Charleston merchant, giving it the name Smith Island.

Though many pirates and plunderers used the island as temporary refuge, the most famous was Stede Bonnet, known as the “Gentleman Pirate.”  Bonnet left his comfortable family life in Barbados and embarked on a life of crime and adventure on the high seas.  He purchased a sloop named Revenge, outfitted it with guns and a crew, and set sail along the east coast.  At one point, he was partner, guest, and prisoner all at once of Blackbeard, one of the most infamous rogues to fly the skull and crossbones.  Bonnet was pardoned by North Carolina Governor Charles Eden, but failed to reform.  He was captured in the mouth of the Cape Fear River and hanged in Charleston in 1718.