Lights of the Lower Cape Fear

Lights of the Lower Cape Fear – Some Important Dates
By Rebecca Taylor & Gayle Keresey

—  [first published in the October, 2008 FPHPS Newsletter]

1761  –  In 1761, the pilot road across the beach at the “Hawl-over” was blown out by a terrific hurricane and was converted into what was to be known as “New Inlet.”

1784  –   NC General Assembly passed an act levying an additional sixpence per ton duty on all vessels entering the Cape Fear River, the proceeds to be set aside for construction of the proposed lighthouse at Bald Head.  Benjamin Smith, owner of Smith Island, offered to donate ten acres of  “high land on the promontory of Bald Head” to the state of NC,  after a special assembly action providing protection of the cattle and hogs he grazed on the Island.

1789 – The NC General Assembly enacted legislation that added Smith Island to the “commissioners of pilotage for the bar and river of Cape Fear” and further prohibited any person from keeping “cattle, hogs and stock of any kind on Smith’s Island.”

August 7, 1789 – United States Congress passed act “for the establishment and support of light-houses, beacons, buoys and public piers.”  As of August 15, 1789 the federal government would assume all costs for lighthouses and other aids-to-navigation. They assumed all responsibility for twelve colonial lighthouses and four incomplete projects including Bald Head.

November 27, 1789  – “A committee of the House of Representatives reported that the Cape Fear commissioners had contracted with a man named Thomas Withers to deliver 200,000 bricks to Bald Head for the purpose of erecting a lighthouse.”

1790  – NC General Assembly transferred land for Bald Head and Ocracoke lighthouses to Federal Govt.

1795  – Congress had to make three additional appropriations of over $7,000 before the work was finished. Bald Head Light lit.  First keeper Henry Long who was paid $333.33 a year.

1810  – US Dept of Treasury authorizes double line of 2000 poles filled with brush to stop reported erosion endangering Bald Head.

April 1813 – Bald Head “lighthouse it self is washed down.” Only remnant of Bald Head lighthouse is steel engraving showing a water spout approaching the lighthouse.

May 22, 1816  – Treasury Dept. published calls for proposals for the building of a Light-House on Bald Head (Old Baldy) in the State of North Carolina.

1817 – Bald Head (Old Baldy) completed and lit.

September 1816 – March 1817 – Federal Point Lighthouse (#1) was built by Benjamin Jacobs. He was paid $1300. The beacon was 40 feet high and painted white. It stood on the north side of the entrance to the Cape Fear River.

April 7, 1817  – Charles B. Gause deeded an acre of land on Federal Point to the United States government for the erection of a light house. The deed was recorded in New Hanover County Deed Book P, page 396.

April 13, 1836 –  Federal Point (#1) was destroyed by fire.

1837 – Federal Point Lighthouse (#2) and a Dwelling House was built by Henry Stowell. The height of the tower was 40 feet from base to lantern, which was a Fixed light with 11 Winslow Lewis Patent lamps with 14 inch reflectors. The visibility was 15 miles.

1843-1845  – “A complete renovation of the lighthouse Federal Point (#2) and the keeper’s dwelling was made during the years 1843 through 1845.”

August 14, 1848  – Congress authorized bill for series of lighthouses from Bald Head to Wilmington. $3,600 for: beacon light on the Upper Jetty, Cape Fear river. $3,500: beacon light on Campbell’s island;  $3,500: beacon light at Orton Point  $3,500; light boat at Horse Shoe Shoal $10,000; two beacon lights placed at Price’s Creek  $6,000; two light-houses and keeper’s house on Oak Island  $9,000;  two buoys marking the bar  $500.”

1849   – “The last inlet light to be placed along the Cape Fear River was the Price[‘s] Creek Lighthouse, which was built in 1849.  Two structures were actually built on the river, and were part of a larger group of river lights that helped ships reach Wilmington, North Carolina’s largest port. The lights included Oak Island, Campbell Island, Orton’s Point, and a lightship at Horse Shoe [Shoal].  The beacons were configured as range lights that would line up to better reveal the inlet and help vessels navigate the channel.”

September 7, 1849 – “Oak Island lights were completed.”  “…It had two free-standing beacons and a separate structure for the keeper,” commonly called Caswell Lights.

May 2, 1851    Letter from Mr. Rankin commending payment to Wm. A. Wright “for services rendered under the appropriation for the erection of Light Houses.”
— January 1, 1850 erection of Beacons at Oak Island.
— May 1 – Aug. 17, 1850 Erection of Beacon at Orton Point.
— May 1 – Aug. 17, 1850 Erection of Beacon at Campbell’s Island.
— January 21 – Aug 17, 1851 Erection of Beacons at Price’s Creek.
In this letter there is a P.S. reading; “The Light Boat has arrived.”

“During the War” –  “Despite the fact that all lights were extinguished at the advent of the hostilities between the States in 1861, Colonel William Lamb found it necessary to have a beacon at Fort Fisher mounted on a very high mound of earth called Mound Battery, to guide the blockade runners through New Inlet. The beacon was only lighted upon the return of the proper signal from a friendly vessel and after the vessel had entered the Cape Fear safely, the light was extinguished. From reports, this light was a type of mobile unit.”

1863 –  “Price’s Creek Light House – Confederate States Signal Station.  We see on the Western side of the Cape Fear River the old antebellum light house and keeper’s residence on Price’s Creek, which were used during the Civil War as a signal station – the only means of communication between Ft. Caswell at the western bar and Fort Fisher at the New Inlet was Smithville, where the Confederate General resided.”  There are also references to signal communication between Ft. Fisher and Ft. Anderson near Orton Pt.

After the war  –  “The lighthouses on the Cape Fear River south of Wilmington, extinguished during the war, were not replaced, except for the screw-pile at Federal Point near New Inlet and the small lighthouses on Oak Island near the mouth of the main river.  Temporary day markers were erected to take the place of the other lights on the Cape Fear, and in the 1880’s a series of fourteen unattended range beacons, for the most part consisting of lanterns mounted on top of pilings, were installed to aid mariners navigating the lower reaches of the river. “

1865  – Frying Pan Shoals:  “A two-mast schooner-rigged vessel was anchored off the tip of the shoals in ten fathoms of water.  The hull and lower part of the masts were painted yellow and the words ‘Frying Pan Shoals,’ in bold black letters on each side, the vessel exhibited two lights at an elevation of forty feet above see level.”

1866  Cape Fear (Old Baldy) Lighthouse was extinguished because a new lighthouse had been erected on Federal Point. “Screw pile at Federal Point”

1879  – Oak Island range lights rebuilt.  “Commonly called Caswell Lights.”  “Also, written records clearly describe the lights that were rebuilt in 1879. The front range light was a wooden structure with gingerbread-house elements, secured to a sixteen-foot high by fourteen-food wide brick foundation…”  “…The lower or rear light was a simple one, Mounted on skids so it could be moved when the channel periodically shifted.”

June 14, 1879 – Mr. Henry Nutt, chairman of the Committee on River and Bar Improvement, informed the Wilmington newspaper, The Morning Star, that New Inlet was closed.  It was his honor to be the first to walk across this day, at 12 noon, dry-footed, from Federal Point to Zeke’s Island, a distance of nearly a mile, in the company of his grandson, Wm. M. Parsley.

1880  – The Bald Head Lighthouse (Old Baldy) was re-lighted, because the New Inlet was now closed.  The Federal Point Lighthouse (#3) was found to be useless.

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.  It was a wooden structure, situated about one mile from the site of Fort Fisher.

1893  –   “A hurricane seriously damaged the Oak Island range lights and keeper’s house.”   “Front beacon was rebuilt.”

July 18, 1893  – Congress approved $35,000 for Cape Fear Lighthouse.  Also authority for an additional $35,000 if needed.

August 31, 1903   –  Charlie Swan became keeper of the NEW Cape Fear Lighthouse.  He lit the lamp that put it in service.

1941  – Bald Head Lighthouse (old Baldy) becomes a radio beacon.

May 15, 1958  – “The former keeper for Cape Fear Lighthouse, Cap’n Charles Swann, threw the switch that activated the Oak Island Lighthouse on May 15, 1958.  This was the last lighthouse built in North Carolina, and one of the last built in the United States.” Two Marine Corps helicopters were needed to put the lamp into place.”

September 12, 1958 – Cape Fear Lighthouse demolished.

1964 – Frying Pan Lightship – replaced by 1/5 million dollar “tower.”

November 27, 1964  – Last Frying Pan Lightship was relieved of duty after 110 years.   Was reassigned at a “relief” ship for the Cape May Station.  Was Lightship # 115, the first diesel on the east coast.

1964  – Frying Pan Light Station – Built in Louisiana and brought on a huge barge to NC, 28 miles southeast of Cape Fear – cost $2 million.

Spring/Summer 2004 – Frying Pan Schoals Station scheduled to be demolished.