WILMINGTON — Around the world, lighthouses have guided ships safely to port since man began exploring the high seas. Here in North Carolina, there are seven lighthouses dotting our coast, including the tallest lighthouse in America, the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
On Aug. 7, 1789, Congress approved an act for the establishment and support of lighthouse, beacons, buoys and public piers. In 1989, as a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the signing, Congress passed a resolution designating Aug. 7 as National Lighthouse Day.
In honor of this day, Port City Daily is taking you along the shores of the Cape Fear, to take a look at some of the historical lighthouses in our area.
Oak Island Lighthouse
According to the Friends of the Oak Island Lighthouse (FOIL), the automated Oak Island Lighthouse was completed in 1958 at a total cost of $110,000, to replace the manned lighthouse at nearby Bald Head Island.
The lights are 169 feet above the water and can be seen from 16 miles offshore, although the actual structure is actually only 153 feet tall.
The tower is designed to stand tall in winds up to 100 m.p.h. winds, and is colored gray at the bottom, white in the mid section, and black at the top.
According to FOIL, there is no spiral staircase as found in most older lighthouses. Instead, a series of ship ladders, with a total of 131 steps, leads to the lantern gallery level.
The characteristic flashing pattern for the light is four, one-second flashes every 10 seconds. The lighting apparatus in the Oak Island Lighthouse is made up of eight aero beacon lighting fixtures, four on top and four on the bottom.
When the light was first activated in 1958, it was the brightest in the U.S., and second brightest lighthouse in the world.
The light was deeded from the U.S. Coast Guard to the Town of Caswell Beach in 2004. Tours are offered year round through FOIL, who also maintain the lighthouse through donations. For more information, visit oakislandlighhouse.com.
Old Baldy is the oldest lighthouse in North Carolina, celebrating its 200 birthday in 2017. Located on Bald Head Island, the lighthouse was originally built to mark the entrance to the Cape Fear River for sailors.
According to the Old Baldy Foundation, the lighthouse was constructed in 1817 of soft red bricks covered in stucco, and has maintained its same form for 187 years.
Originally, Old Baldy was completely white, and was whitewashed by the lighthouse keeper every two years. However, according to foundation, after the lighthouse was abandoned in 1935 it fell into disrepair, with only the occasional patch job. As a result, the lighthouse is now a “patch work quilt of different stucco.”
The lighthouse stands at 110 feet tall, The original light was powered by 15 lamps and was built as a “parabolic reflector with hollow wick lamps, fueled by whale oil, and arranged on a metal rack.”
The foundation states that over the years, Old Baldy’s light signal has changed several times. 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 re-lit in 1879. In 1893, the flashing light of Old Baldy was changed to white and new lamps were installed. In 1903, Old Baldy became a 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 re-lit, but not as a navigational aid.
The lighthouse is now a museum, with tours being offered through the Old Baldy Foundation. Tickets are $6 for adults, and $3 for children 3-12 years of age. For more information, visit its website at oldbaldy.org.
Frying Pan Tower
Although technically not a lighthouse, this historic beacon sits 34 miles off the coast of Bald Head Island, at the tip of the Frying Pan Shoals.
The station was constructed by the United States Coast Guard in 1960 to replace a floating light ship that marked the southern end of the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” which is a network of shallow water and shoals beginning at the northern end of the Outer Banks.
According to the Frying Pan Tower website, the structure is a modified “Texas Tower,” designed to provide housing and support for the beacon, warning ships of the shallow waters that can range from 35 to 50 feet deep under the tower.
The Light Station was automated in 1979 with repair and maintenance crews stationed at the USGC Station Oak Island providing emergency and routine maintenance.
The station became obsolete with the invention of GPS and radar, and was abandoned in 2004. In 2010 the federal government put the station up for sale, where it was purchased by North Carolina resident Richard Neal for $85,000.
The former light station is now a bed and breakfast, and is being restored piece by piece by the owner and a team of volunteers. The B&B is only accessible by boat or helicopter, and standing in 50 feet of water near the Gulf Stream, caters to fisherman, boaters and adventurers.
For more information, visit the Frying Pan Tower website at fptower.com.