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Why is Bald Head Island in Brunswick County instead of New Hanover County?

Ben Steelman
Old Baldy

The Old Baldy lighthouse is a landmark on Bald Head Island. (StarNews file photo)

Actually, it was in New Hanover County until 1764, when Brunswick County was created from New Hanover and Bladen counties.

But it does make a good question, if you look at the map today, when Bald Head, or Smith, Island seems to be a near-continuous part of Federal Point and the southern tip of New Hanover.

But it wasn’t always that way. In the 18th century, an inlet ran between Smith Island and Zeke’s Island to the north, and north of Zeke’s Island was the New Inlet, which opened in a storm in 1761. For decades, the New Inlet was actually the preferred entrance to the Cape Fear River for ships bound to Wilmington. (Blockade runners routinely took this route in the Civil War, which is a big reason that Fort Fisher was built where it was.)

Currents from the New Inlet, however, threatened to silt up and close Wilmington’s route to the sea. Therefore, between 1870 and 1891, the Army Corps of Engineers closed the New Inlet and the Zeke’s Island channel with a massive man-made barrier known as “The Rocks.” These can still be seen today.

(One of the lead engineers on this project was Henry Bacon. His son, also named Henry, would become a noted architect – and use some of his father’s engineering techniques from The Rocks to sink the foundations of the Lincoln Memorial into the marshy banks of the Potomac River.)

Also, most efforts to develop or cultivate Smith Island/Bald Head Island came out of Brunswick County and many of its owners lived there. The island was originally named for Thomas Smith, who acquired the island by grant from the Lords Proprietors of North Carolina in 1713. The land passed to his descendant, Benjamin Smith, who was a Brunswick County planter and governor of North Carolina (1810-1811).

A bit of nomenclature: In the old days, Smith Island was the name for a complex of smaller islands linked by marshes. The main islets were Bluff Island, Middle Island and Bald Head Island. Bald Head was properly applied only to the southwestern tip of Smith Island – so named for the large, bare sand mound that dominated its landscape in the old days. These days, however, locals tend to use “Smith Island” and “Bald Head Island” interchangeably. The North Carolina Gazetteer prefers Smith Island but admits Bald Head Island as an alternate name for the whole complex.

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2 Responses to “ Why is Bald Head Island in Brunswick County instead of New Hanover County?”

  1. On October 26, 2011 at 4:59 pm Buster wrote:

    I heard that when the location was selected for the Battleship, New Hanover County offered a trade for the west side of the Cape Fear River for Bald Head Island. New Havover wanted to have the bragging rights to the battleship to boost local economy. If true, I think Brunswick County may have gotten the better deal.

  2. On November 3, 2011 at 9:19 am tiny wrote:

    New Hanover can have it.They took the portion of Brunswick for the battleship.Go ahead.

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