The Search for the Federal Point Lighthouse
Unidentified Light House / Fort Fisher – by George Tate
Rebecca Taylor & Gayle Keresey
Years ago, while I was working as supervisor of the Carolina Beach Library, the branch manager told me that she’d seen a picture of a strange old house with what appeared to be a lighthouse lantern room on the top hanging in a corridor at the County Administration Building. It was captioned Federal Point Lighthouse. Neither of us had ever heard of a Federal Point Lighthouse.
Several phone calls later, I’d managed to find out that the Cape Fear Museum owned the original photo, and that they’d be more than willing to make us a large mounted copy to display at the Carolina Beach Library where it hangs to this day.
Our first source for all things Lighthouse in North Carolina was David Sticks’s North Carolina Lighthouses where we found that indeed there had been a lighthouse at Federal Point; in fact, there had been a succession of three different structures erected to guide ships through the “New Inlet.”
This significant opening between the Atlantic Ocean and the Cape Fear River had formed during a storm in September of 1761 about 5 miles above the mouth of the Cape Fear River.
For several years our research stopped there, but in 2007 I retired from the Library and took new part-time position at the Federal Point History Center, a small museum and visitors’ center run by the Federal Point Historic Preservation Society. I was surprised to discover that the Society’s logo showed a lighthouse, one that looked nothing like the photograph hanging in the Library. The Society’s old-timers told me that the depiction was of the first Federal Point Lighthouse, created by a member, who had taken descriptions in historical records and created the logo. Soon after starting, I found a lighthouse folder in the History Center’s files that included a detailed history along with pictures of the three successive lights.
The Local History Room of the New Hanover County Public Library also held a number of sources, including the Bill Reaves Files which are extensive newspaper clipping grouped by subject that go back to the early 1800’s. Our problem was that no two sources agreed on exactly where this lighthouse stood. Over the next two years we managed to piece together the history of this almost forgotten light.
In 1814 the U.S. Congress, responding to cries from seagoing navigators as well as merchants in Wilmington, authorized the construction of a beacon at Federal Point. By September 1816 Robert Cochran, collector of customs at Wilmington and superintendent of the lighthouse on Bald Head Island, signed a contract with Benjamin Jacobs for the construction of the beacon. The land upon which the light would stand was acquired by the Federal Government April of 1817 when New Hanover County deed books record that “Charles B. Gause deeded an acre of land on Federal Point to the United States Government for the erection of a lighthouse.”
We also discovered that U.S. Lighthouse Service records from 1816 and 1817 describe the light as a “conical brick beacon standing forty feet in height to the base of the lantern.” It is also recorded that “at the base it measured six feet across with walls three feet thick.” The tower was also described as having a shingled roof and an exterior that was plastered and painted white.
This first light served its purpose well, and there are continuing mentions of it in both Blunt’s American Coast Pilot and the annual Treasury Department Reports to Congress throughout the next 20 years. In 1832 Robert Mills provided the following description in his book American Pharos, Or Lighthouse Guide. “This is also a stationary light, erected on Federal Point, in latitude 33.58 and longitude 78.06.” Sadly, the Wilmington Advertiser of Friday April 22d,  reported that “The Beacon at Federal Point was destroyed by fire on the night of Wednesday the 13th.”
The light must have been an important aid to navigation because by May of 1837 the Wilmington Port Collector’s Office was advertising for bids to rebuild the light. “Proposals will be received … for building a Light House and Dwelling House at Federal Point.”
This time those building specs give us a very good idea of just what the Lighthouse must have looked like. “The tower to be built of hard brick, the form round; the foundation to be sunk three feet deep…the diameter of the base to be 18 that of the top 9 feet.” The specifications go on to detail everything from the size and placement of the windows and circular iron stairs to this description of the lantern. “The height and diameter of the lantern to be sufficient to admit an iron sash in each octagon, to contain eighteen lights, eleven by nine glass…” For the first time a brick keeper’s cottage is also included. “thirty-four feet by twenty feet, one story, of eight feet height, divided into two rooms…”
For the next 25 years this lighthouse and keeper’s quarters stood vigil beside New Inlet, though records show that “A complete renovation of the lighthouse [Federal Point] and the keeper’s dwelling was made during the years 1843 through 1847.” We also eventually came across a slightly different set of coordinates: 33.56.30 by 77.55.00 was published by the US Lighthouse service in 1849.
With the coming of the Civil War In 1863 the Confederate Governor John W. Ellis ordered all of North Carolina’s costal lights “destroyed, rendered inoperative, or have their lanterns removed.” From records of the war we know that Col. William Lamb, commander of the growing fortification at the tip of Federal Point, had originally used a platform built against the lighthouse to watch for the swift and sure merchant ships running the Union blockade to bring arms and supplies into the port of Wilmington. This platform is clearly visible in a painting done in 1863 by Captain George Tait of the 40th North Carolina shortly before the lighthouse was pulled down in 1863. Interestingly, for the first years of the war, the light so important to the blockade runners that each was expected to contribute one barrel of sperm oil each time they used the passage and protection of Fort Fisher.
However, by early 1863 the Union blockade had closed in on the Cape Fear and Union ships began to use the lighthouse tower to target the fort and particularly Lamb’s headquarters located in the keeper’s quarters just below it. In the military record of North Carolina Troops we came across the following: “Campen, Alfred, Private. Enlisted in Beaufort County at age 19, September 30, 1861 for the war. Killed at Fort Fisher, New Hanover County, January 30, 1863 ‘by the falling of the lighthouse.’”
After the war, it didn’t take long to replace this vital aid to navigation. In the spring of 1866, a notice appeared that “the new Federal Point Light-house on the north side of New Inlet” would be in service by April 30. This third lighthouse was a very different style of structure. Here, finally was the two story wooden frame house with the light apparatus on its roof. The light was also in a new location further south and closer to the edge of New Inlet.
Throughout the 1860’s and 70’s there was considerable activity at Federal Point and along New Inlet. A group of men from Beaufort established a mullet fishery on the beach near the lighthouse. Hunting appears to have been good, too. On January 2, 1878, the Wilmington Star reported “Mr. Taylor, the keeper of the Federal Point Lighthouse, dined on a fine, fat duck for his dinner on last Saturday, although it was a rather costly duck to the government. On Friday about midnight, Mr. Taylor was attending to his light, when a duck came crashing through one of the large glasses, falling at his feet dead…valuable glass was shattered beyond repair. This was the second time that a bird had crashed into the Lighthouse.”
But there were soon to be other changes in the area of New Inlet. By 1871, the Federal Government had conducted a study of the various channels and shoals, sand banks, and inlets that made up the navigation network from the mouth of the Cape Fear to the Port of Wilmington. As a result, a series of projects attempting to close New Inlet lasted throughout the 1870’s. The hope was that by pushing more water through the mouth of the Cape Fear River between Bald Head Island and Oak Island, those navigational channels would deepen and become more stable.
With the closing of New Inlet, the Federal Point Lighthouse’s days were numbered. In the 1877 Annual Report of the Light-House Board, this ominous note appears: “The station needs extensive repairs, but in view of the probable discontinuance of the light on the closing of New Inlet, works to accomplish which are now in progress, nothing has been done toward making them.” By 1879 the Federal Point Lighthouse was no longer a listed “aid to navigation” and in 1880 the Bald Head Light was re-lighted because New Inlet had been closed and the Federal Point Lighthouse had been found to be “useless.”
One final record of the light appears in Wilmington papers. “August 23, 1881: The lighthouse at Federal Point was destroyed by fire late this afternoon. This lighthouse had not been in use since the closing of New Inlet, but it was occupied as a dwelling by Mr. Taylor, the former keeper.”
Now we knew the chronology and what had happened to each of the three Federal Point lights. We even knew what each had looked like, but where exactly had each of these lighthouses been located?
Using the clue about Battle Acre we began researching the plot of land that is now within the North Carolina State Historic Site. Documents showed that in the early 1960’s eminent archaeologist Stanley South had begun his career as manager of the site. He’d gone prospecting in Battle Acre and found the brick foundation of a building that exactly matched the historical record of the second light keeper’s cottage. An extensive excavation found a number of artifacts both from the Civil War era and from earlier occupation. But he failed to find any sign of the actual lighthouse foundation and concluded that over time it had washed away into the ocean along with almost all of Fort Fisher’s sea facing revetments. We managed to meet Dr. South when he came back to Fort Fisher for a program, and in the few minutes we had with him he confirmed his belief that the foundation of the second Lighthouse seemed to have been washed away. He also told us that back in the sixties he’d found the foundation of the first lighthouse located within the boundaries of the historic site but closer to the river. Before this everyone we’d talked to assumed that the foundation for number two had been laid atop the foundation of the first lighthouse.
Then in November 2009 I received a call at the Federal Point History Center. The staff of the Historic Site, with the help of members of the North Carolina Office of Archaeology, had uncovered a round brick foundation that matched the measurements of lighthouse number two perfectly. It had been there all along located just a few feet east of the Keeper’s Quarters.
Jim Steele, the current manager of the Fort Fisher Site, told me that they had been working on adding ADA access walkways to Battle Acre. Because it is a registered historic site, they had to do test holes to be sure that the new construction won’t disturb any existing historic structures. One of the test holes had taken them down to a brick foundation, so they stopped and asked the North Carolina Office of Archeology to come down and help them find what was down there.
What they found was a foundation that extended exactly three feet below the base, and which matched the dimensions of second lighthouse perfectly. It was situated dead center in that original acre of land bought by the Federal Government in 1817, and it was accompanied by artifacts not only from the Civil War era but also from family life as early as the 1840’s.
Sadly for lighthouse enthusiasts the site remained open only two days. The foundation was immediately reburied, due to considerations about how long it might remain intact exposed to the wind and weather, as well as for its safety from tourists who might chip off a piece as a memento. Steele hopes to eventually find a way to interpret the site though with the current budget woes that may be awhile in coming.
The Third Federal Point Lighthouse
The exact site of the third light remains undiscovered. In an Island Gazette story Mark Weaver, a local Civil War buff, says “I have roamed through the woods, all through the Fort Fisher area looking for the lighthouse ditch and couldn’t find it. I searched and searched for some clue to where the exact spot of the lighthouse was. I guess it’s under the foundation of the Aquarium.” Another local historian swears that he’s seen it, and that it’s buried in the briars and brambles deep in the woods of the aquarium property.
So, though there is nothing to see at the original sites, you can see the photo of Lighthouse number three at the Carolina Beach Branch Library at 300 Cape Fear Blvd., just two blocks west of US 421 In downtown Carolina Beach. Be sure to call 910-798-6380 for open hours.
Or stop by the Federal Point History Center, at 1121 S. Lake Park Blvd., just south of the Carolina Beach Town Hall where you can see pictures of all three lights as well pictures taken of the 2009 excavation. Check its hours by calling 910-458-0502.
The next time you come across a picture or reference to a lighthouse you’ve never heard of don’t hesitate to dig in and discover its history, You must may find a lot more then you expected.