Bald Head lighthouse also known as "Old Baldy" got its name because of some
dunes void of vegetation resembled bald heads. They became that way, the story goes,
because pilots wore down the vegetation from standing on the dunes watching for ships
needing guidance up the Cape Fear River. Thats the story anyway. The lighthouse is
on Bald Head Island, also known as Smith Island. Nothing like having more than one name
for an island to make things confusing. Bald Head marks the entrance to the Cape Fear
River and just a couple of miles offshore from Southport. Again several names are used for
the lighthouse. The official name is the Cape Fear Lighthouse. Its also referred to
as the Cape Fear lighthouse but is most often referred to as Bald Head lighthouse. It was
built primarily to guide ships past the dangerous Frying Pan Shoals that lie seven miles
out in the Atlantic.
Bald Head lighthouse is the oldest lighth still standing in North Carolina. The first one was built
in 1795 but beach erosion caused it to be replaced with this one. A third lighthouse was
built in 1903 at nearby Federal Point, about eight miles to the north of Bald Head. It was
eventually shut down leaving Bald Head again the only lighthouse in the area until a
modern lighthouse was built in 1958 on nearby Oak Island putting Bald Head out of
commission for a final time.
In a beautiful setting the Bald Head lighthouse now stands restored as a monument and adds to the
mystique of the somewhat exclusive Bald Head Island which until the 70s stood
undeveloped. Now high-priced homes used mostly during the season dot the island. Walking,
bicycles, or golf carts are how people get around as there are no cars there with the
exception of some service vehicles. As much as I find developing distasteful on places
like this, I must admit that Bald Head Island is extremely attractive.
The octagonal lighthouse has a very wide base and is very spacious inside. At the top,
a vertical ladder leads the way through a trap door to get to where the light use to be.
The lantern room is set off center from the rest of the ninety foot high lighthouse to
better accommodate the vertical ladder that ascends the final few feet into the lantern
room. The lighthouse at Ocracoke has this same configuration. There is no longer a light
at the top and the lantern room sits empty except for the visitors that climb the 112
wooden steps to get a birdseye view of the island.
The only way to Bald Head Island is by boat, either private or ferry. The ferry runs
regularly but since I already had my twelve-foot aluminum boat with me, I chose not to
spend the $15 ferry fee for the couple of miles to the island but I wont do that
again. The pass got quite rough, too much for my little boat and although I managed it, I
learned something in the bargain because I nearly got swamped several times in the high
While talking to the local residents on the mainland, it was their opinion that the
high cost of the short ferry was due in part to keeping the island exclusive but after
considering all there is to the ferry operation I think that its a fair deal. If you
plan on spending the night on the island, there are several places to stay but they will
cost between $150 and $300 a night.
If you stay in Southport, dont expect a selection of Holiday Inns and Hyatt
hotels to choose from. This small quaint town with just a few bed and breakfasts and home
owned motels has managed so far to keep its charm. The streets are lined with large oaks
and the town dotted with many interesting buildings, antique shops and a maritime museum.
Call (800) 234-1666 for more information about the ferry boat.