Posted/Updated by Bryan Penberthy on 2013-04-14.
As commercial activity flourished in North Carolina in the mid-1700s to the 1800s, Wilmington became one of the largest ports in the state. A hurricane struck the area on September 23, 1761 carving out a new inlet near the mouth of the Cape Fear River. This new inlet would shorten the travel time to the Port of Wilmington, and would become the preferred route of mariners.
In 1784, the General Assembly of North Carolina passed a law to establish rules for navigating the Cape Fear River. One of the things the law did was levy a tax of six pence per ton on incoming cargo to raise money for a lighthouse. The law stated that the lighthouse was to be built "at the extreme point of Bald-head or some other convenient place near the bar of said river, in order that vessels may be enabled thereby to avoid the great shoal called the Frying-Pan."
By 1789, the Colony of North Carolina had purchased a ten-acre site on the west side of Bald Head Island from Benjamin Smith, who would later become governor of North Carolina in 1810. The commissioners followed the law to the letter and constructed the lighthouse dangerously close to the river. They contracted with Thomas Withers for the delivery of 200,000 bricks, but due to several issues, they were never delivered.
North Carolina joined the United States in November of 1789. The following year, the State of North Carolina ceded the ten-acre plot of land and the incomplete lighthouse to the federal government. Congress approved an act on April 2, 1792 appropriating $4,000 for completing the Bald Head Island Lighthouse.
It appears that the $4,000 allocated in 1792 was not enough and additional appropriations would be necessary. An act of March 2, 1793 appropriated an additional $2,000 and an act of January 2, 1795 appropriated an amount "not exceeding four thousand dollars." A final payment of $1,359.14 was approved on March 2, 1797 bringing the total cost of the lighthouse to $11,359.14.
The United States Treasury, the department of the federal government in charge of lighthouses at the time, appointed contractor Abisha Woodward to complete the Bald Head Island Lighthouse. He would later go on to construct the New London Harbor and Falkner's Island Lighthouses in Connecticut.
The lighthouse was completed and ready for operations on December 5, 1794. It was first lighted on the night of December 23, 1794. A few years later, erosion threatened the lighthouse. By 1810, efforts were put forth to stop the erosion including construction of a jetty. In the end, it would not be enough as the beach underneath the lighthouse began to erode in 1813. It was ordered to be torn down for safety reasons.
Between 1813 and 1817, Congress had appropriated $16,000 for rebuilding the Bald Head Lighthouse. It would later become affectionately known as "Old Baldy."
The tower was completed in 1817 under budget and further inland to ensure its longevity. The ninety-foot octagonal brick tower was built by Daniel S. Way, who had constructed the first Point Judith Lighthouse in 1810. It is reported that some of the bricks included in this tower were reused from the original lighthouse.
The tower, built upon a stone foundation, was constructed to withstand the elements. At its base, the tower is thirty-six feet wide with five foot thick walls tapering to fourteen-and-a-half feet wide with two foot thick walls. The ground floor was also constructed of brick, but the stairs, other floors, and joists are Carolina yellow pine. It was topped off by an iron lantern from the foundry of R. Cochran, which was brought over from the original lighthouse.
Although the lighthouse served the New Inlet well, it really did nothing to help with navigating the dangerous Frying Pan Shoals some nineteen miles offshore. To rectify the situation, the Lighthouse Board ordered a light vessel be placed off the southern extremity of the shoal in 1854.
The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle for 1854 had the following entry:
LIGHT OFF THE FRYING-PAN SHOALS, CAPE FEAR, NORTH CAROLINA - The Lighthouse Board of the United States has given notice, that a light-vessel will be placed off the Southern extremity of the Frying-pan shoals. The vessel will carry two lights at an elevation of about 40 feet above the level the sea, on her two masts - she will be painted yellow, as well as her lower masts, but with white topmasts - and she will carry an open work oval day-mark, painted black, at an elevation of about 58 feet above the water line. Her yellow hull will have "Frying-pan Shoals" in large black letter on both sides.
Starting with the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1878, a recommendation for a first-order lighthouse first appeared:
The necessity has long been felt for a first-order coast-light at Cape Fear, North Carolina. This point, from which extend the dangerous Frying Pan Shoals, is one of the most prominent on the coast, and a first-order light which could readily be seen by vessels outside of them, would, with the light-ship in this position make the navigating of vessels across them and outside comparatively easy. An appropriation of $50,000 is recommended for this purpose.
The Lighthouse Board started by examining the stability of the shoals. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1881, had the following entry:
Examinations have been made on Frying-pan Shoals, off Cape Fear, North Carolina, but more must be made before the Board will be prepared to submit plans and estimates for a light-house.
In 1883, an experimental iron beacon was built and stored at the Castle Pinckney buoy depot in South Carolina awaiting an opportunity to place it into position. A year later, it was still not erected in place, with a note in the Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board stating that it was awaiting the necessary appliances.
Starting around May of 1885, the Lighthouse Board began receiving letters from the representatives of several steamship lines requesting that the Frying Pan Shoals lightship be replaced with a lighthouse. The naval secretary also stated that the Board had received requests for a lighthouse on Cape Hatteras Shoals.
Papers relative to both projects were requested before the committee for consideration. The secretary asked that, if possible, informal bids including rough sketch plans, estimated costs of construction, and projected maintenance costs for five years. The final request in the letter was to rescind the recommendation to place an iron beacon temporarily upon Frying Pan Shoals. By June 6, 1885, Henry F. Picking, Commander of the U.S Navy, Naval Secretary, stated by letter that a decision has not been made between the Frying Pan and Diamond Shoals for the placement of a first-order lighthouse. By July 2, the decision was made to construct the lighthouse on the Outer Diamond Shoal off Cape Hatteras.
After that decision was made, Frying Pan Shoals continued being marked by lightships. By 1889, the Lighthouse Board was recommending a first-order light on Bald Head Island due to the increased shoaling in the area. The board would echo the recommendation every year throughout the 1890s. Congress relented and passed an act on July 1, 1898 approving a first-order light. The Annual Report of the Lighthouse Board dated 1899 had the following entry:
Cape Fear, seacoast of North Carolina - An appropriation for a first-order light-house, to be built on the pitch of Cape Fear, Smith Island, North Carolina, having been made by the act approved July 1, 1898, and authority given to contract to an amount not exceeding $70,000, a survey was made in September, 1898, on Smith Island and a site of 20 acres was selected, with right of way, along which a tramway line was located, connecting the site with the Cape Fear River. A boring made indicated a good foundation for the tower. Legal measures are being taken to procure a title to the selected site.
Over the next several years, the work progressed along. By August 31, 1903, the first-order Fresnel lens of the new Cape Fear Lighthouse was illuminated and began flashing. Although the new Cape Fear Lighthouse adequately marked the Frying Pan Shoals, the Lighthouse Board left the Frying Pan Lightship assigned to the location.
Various lightships marked the shoals until 1964 when the U.S. Coast Guard replaced it with a "Texas Tower," which resembled an oil platform. The tower, which consisted of four steel, concrete-filled piles driven into the ocean floor, was then topped with a square platform which would serve as the living quarters and a helipad. One corner of the platform housed a light.
The Coast Guard automated the tower in 1976. It would continue its service until 2003 when it was deactivated in favor of a more maintenance-friendly navigational buoy. The General Services Administration put the tower up for auction on October 20, 2008. When the auction closed in March of 2009, Lee Spence, an owner of Shipwrecks Inc. of South Carolina was the winning bidder with a bid of $515,000. The company failed to pay the required ten-percent within ten days of the auction closing, and therefore lost the auction.
The U.S. General Services Administration relisted the auction and began soliciting bids. The winning bidder, Richard Neal, A software sales engineer from Charlotte, North Carolina, won the auction in August of 2010. The winning bid was $85,000. Mr. Neal plans to restore the tower and turn it into an Adventure Vacation location. You can reserve your overnight stay today.
- Lighthouses of the Carolinas - A Short History and Guide, Terrance Zepke, 1998.
- Annual Report of the Light House Board, U.S. Lighthouse Service, Various years.
- America's Atlantic Coast Lighthouses (6th edition), Jeremy D'Entremont, 2005.
- "Frying Pan Shoals light tower again needs new owner," Shelby Sebens, Star News Online, April 14, 2009.
- Frying Pan Tower website.
Directions: The lighthouse sits 29 miles southeast of Southport, North Carolina. The best views of the lighthouse are by boat.
Access: The lighthouse is private property. Access to the tower can be made by making reservations at fptower.com.
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