Old Baldy Lighthouse

Published 12:00 am Monday, October 31, 2011

By Andy Mooney
mooney@salisburypost.com Off the coast of Bald Head Island, a series of sand ridges stretch offshore. They are called the Frying Pan Shoals. The shoals lie at the point where the Cape Fear River meets the ocean, and have posed a navigational threat to mariners for centuries.
In 1784, funds were allocated to build a lighthouse to warn mariners of the dangers beneath the water. Construction began in 1795, but the structure was built too close to the river’s edge. Shifting winds and sand led to erosion that ate away the foundation. Then a waterspout (a tornado over water) led to the tower’s demise.
Work began on a new, octagonal shaped Bald Head Island Lighthouse, built from brick with a cement coating. Some of the brick and the lantern room of the original lighthouse were used in the construction of the new tower.
The new lighthouse, known as “Old Baldy,” was completed in 1817, making it the oldest standing lighthouse in North Carolina. It cost $16,000 to build. The tower is 110 feet tall, measures 36 feet wide at the base and its walls are 5 feet thick.
Old Baldy was significant in the Civil War, as it functioned as a lookout tower for Confederate troops.
A major general ordered the lighthouse to be destroyed so it wouldn’t fall into Union control. After he saw the potential for a lookout tower, he reconsidered, and Old Baldy was used to help blockade runners on the Cape Fear River.
During the Civil War, most lighthouses were extinguished so Union troops could not use them as a navigational tool. However, Bald Head Island remained in operation to provide a beacon for the blockade runners.
After the war, Old Baldy was decommissioned, but was relit when the Federal Point lighthouse was deactivated in 1880. The Bald Head Island Lighthouse was decommissioned permanently in 1935.
The 2.5-foot-wide lens that was used in the tower is a fourth-order Fresnel lens, which can be seen from about 15 miles. Fresnel lenses were ranked in order, first-order being the brightest. The lens was developed by French civil engineer Augustin-Jean Fresnel, who used a series of prisms to focus the beam of light for use in lighthouses.
Today, the Old Baldy is open to the public and visitors can climb the 108 steps to the top.