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What is Bald Head Island?

Ben Steelman

Also known as Smith Island, Bald Head Island is a large, 17,000-acre land mass sitting at the mouth of the Cape Fear River. Until the 1990s, it was separated from the mainland at Federal Point by Corncake Inlet, but this inlet shoaled up after Hurricanes Fran and Floyd — meaning that Bald Head is, technically, not an island any more. Cape Fear lies at its southeastern corner.

Some geographers, as well as historian William S. Powell, distinguish between Smith Island, a tract of some 12,000 to 13,000 acres of marshlands and wetlands, and “Bald Head,” a term they limit only to its forested southwestern tip. The name reportedly came from its round, sandy bluffs — which once, from a distance, looked like a bald head.

It is this corner of the island that has been developed in recent years as a resort. Most of Bald Head remains, however, among the most unspoiled maritime forest and beach areas on the North Carolina coast, with much of the land under the protection of the Bald Head Island Conservancy.

Bald Head is accessible only by boat or private passenger ferry that runs a number of times daily from Indigo Plantation Indigo Plantation in Southport. Fees for the 20-minute ride are $17 for adults, $8 for children ages 3-12; younger children may ride for free.

In 2000, the U.S. Census put the island’s year-round population at 173; by 2009, that number had grown to some 2,000 to 3,000. During the summer vacation season, however, the number of residents can swell to close to 10,000. Serving them are a full-service grocery, a hardware store, several shops, an assortment of restaurants and cafes, a delicatessen, an ice cream stand, a golf club, a marina and an interdenominational chapel.

Since 1994, local government on Bald Head has been administered as a “village” with an elected mayor and council.

Cars are banned from the island. Except for a few utility trucks and police and emergency vehicles, ground transportation — other than walking — is limited to a fleet a electric golf carts. Carts are available for rent to visitors.

Once known as Cape Island or Cedar Island, for the large number of red cedars which once grew there, the island was acquired in 1713 by Charleston merchant Thomas Smith under a grant from the colonial Lords Proprietors. (Smith held the exotic title of “landgrave,” a rank of hereditary nobility that the Proprietors tried unsuccessfully to impose upon the colony.) The 1733 Moseley map of North Carolina marks it as “Smith’s Island,” while the 1770 Collet map shows it as Bald Head.

For much of its history, the island was largely uninhabited. Native Americans seem to have camped, hunted and harvested oysters on Bald Head seasonally, but no evidence has been found of permanent settlement.

Much of the island remains covered by large stands of live oaks; as late as the 1950s, it was not uncommon to find live oaks on Bald Head as large as 3-4 feet in diameter. Palmettos, dogwoods, loblolly pines, yaupon, red bud, laurel cherry, American holly, and wax myrtle trees also grow in abundance. Some biologists say that Bald Head marks the northern boundary of the East Coast semitropical zone and the northernmost point at which the sabal palm grows.

Loggerhead and green sea turtles lay their eggs along the island’s beaches, and the Bald Head Island Conservancy goes to great efforts to protect then, including an “Adopt-a-Turtle” and “Adopt-A-Nest” program.

The island was reportedly a major roost for passenger pigeons, who feasted on the live oaks’ acorns. At Fort Johnston, near Southport, passenger pigeon flocks more than a mile long were reported flying over the river channel from Bald Head “with a sound resembling a gust of wind.” Bald Head remains a bird haven; among the less common species reported there are the crested flycatcher, marsh wren, parula warbler and boat-tailed grackle.

Raccoons and gray fox are abundant, and deer and alligators apparently swim over from the the mainland in large numbers — large enough numbers, in fact, to become an occasional nuisance to island homeowners.

Stede Bonnet, the “Gentleman Pirate,” supposedly camped on Bald Head before his capture in 1718 at Bonnet’s Creek near Southport. Less reliable rumors claim that Blackbeard stopped by a time or two. During Prohibition, bootleggers and rum-runners used the island as a base.

Livestock were raised periodically on the island since the 1780s, when the island was owned by Thomas Smith’s heir, Benjamin Smith, who was governor of North Carolina (1810-1811). More serious efforts were made to raise hogs and cattle on Bald Head in the 1930s, until World War II forced an end to the effort. Wild hogs, apparently the descendants of those domesticated hogs, were reportedly common on the island into the 1960s. Some experiments at crop farming on the island gained high yields.

A lighthouse was built on the island in 1794, but by 1813, the structure was so threatened by erosion that federal officials decided to pull it down. The next lighthouse, begun in 1816 and first lit in 1817, better stood the test of time — “Old Baldy,” the island’s signature landmark. It remained in service (with interruptions for the Civil War and such) until 1935; from 1941 to 1958, it served as a radio beacon. Today it is owned by the Old Baldy Foundation and is open to the public along with the nearby Smith Island Museum of History, located in a modern replica of the old lighthouse keeper’s cottage.

A third light, the “skeleton tower” of the Cape Fear Lighthouse, was activated in 1903 to mark the nearby Frying Pan Shoals. It remained on duty until 1958, when it was replaced by the modern Oak Island Lighthouse. The Cape Fear Lighthouse was demolished on Sept. 12, 1958, and only the concrete foundations of the tower remains. Charles “Cap’n Charlie” Swann, who was the Cape Fear’s lighthouse keeper from 1903 to 1933, remains a colorful legend on Bald Head; for decades, he and his family were the island’s only inhabitants.

During the Civil War, beginning in 1863, the Confederates built and maintained an earthwork defensive complex, Fort Holmes, on Bald Head, mounting between 15 and 18 guns and with a garrison of up to 1,000 men. The fort was abandoned on Jan. 16, 1865, after the fall of Fort Fisher left its defense untenable.

The U.S. government kept the Cape Fear Lifesaving Station on Bald Head Island from 1882 to 1914. After the merger of the Revenue Cutter and Life Saving Services, the Cape Fear Coast Guard Station was activated on Bald Head in 1915 and remained on duty until 1937. None of these buildings remain standing, except for a boathouse, which was converted into a private cottage. During World War II, the Coast Guard mounted a horse patrol on the island to watch for Nazi spies or saboteurs.

In 1916, Thomas Frank Boyd acquired all of Smith Island, including nearby Middle and Bluff islands, for the sum of $45,000. Boyd built a beach pavilion on Bald Head (which he tried to rechristen “Palmetto Island”) in 1924; after it was severely damaged by a hurricane, he tore it down and used the salvagable lumber to build a hotel (never finished and later demolished) near Old Baldy. His efforts came to naught, and the island was foreclosed by Brunswick County for unpaid taxes and sold at auction in 1936.

The island remained largely deserted after World War II, but development schemes began to be hatched as early as 1960. In the early 1970s, High Point-based Carolina Cape Fear Corp. acquired title to the island. It laid out the first golf fairway in 1973, began selling lots and approached the state about setting up a nature preserve. A 1974 recession, however, doomed its plans. Later, Walter R. Davis, a Texas oil executive born in Elizabeth City, N.C., became involved.

In 1983, Bald Head Island Ltd., owned by the George P. Mitchell family, bought out Davis and his partner James Harrington and took control of the island. Development followed quickly. By the 1984 season, a combined visitors’ center and community store was constructed on the island and a new marina had been prepared.

The Mitchells, meanwhile, made a bequest to the Bald Head Island Conservancy, a private non-profit founded in 1983, setting aside 10,000 acres of marsh and uplands as nature preserves.

Today, Bald Head is promoted as an environmentally friendly resort with 14 miles of beaches, canoe and kayak rentals, and an array of classes and workshops offered by the Bald Head Island Conservancy. Accommodations are available at a bed and breakfast, The Marsh Harbour Inn. In addition, a number of houses may be rented for short-term vacations.

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2 Responses to “ What is Bald Head Island?”

  1. On November 8, 2011 at 5:31 pm Ron Hesmer wrote:

    BHI has never come near inhabiting 3,000 year-round residents. In fact, I seriously doubt that the number has ever approached 300. (Normally fluctuates between 150-225)
    Either your facts need checking or the Census averaged the year-round population based on vacation rental figures.

  2. On December 11, 2011 at 12:43 pm Dawn Taylor wrote:

    Hello. Enjoyed reading your article about the history of Bald Head Island. Would like to add a little info, if I may…

    Devaney Farrow Jennette was my Great Grandfather and Assistant Keeper of the Cape Fear Lighthouse, from 1919-1932. His career ended in Dec. of 32, in the lantern room. He fell over into the arms of Capt’n Charlie Swan, while suffering from a fatal heart attack.

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