On September 11th, 1958 Captain Charles Norton Swan paid a last visit to an old friend, the Cape Fear Lighthouse on Bald Head Island, North Carolina. After 55 years of service the lighthouse was scheduled to be demolished the next day. Built in 1902-3 on the Bald Head Island point of Cape Fear, the southernmost cape in North Carolina on the Atlantic Ocean, the lighthouse warned mariners of the dangers of a shoal area that stretched thirty miles out to sea. These shoals known as Frying Pan Shoals, along with Diamond Shoals by the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, were two of the most dangerous areas for seaman along the North Carolina coast. While a series of lightships had been anchored near the shoals for many years, the Cape Fear Lighthouse was designed to provide a more powerful and dependable warning. Captain Charlie, as the first head keeper of the lighthouse, lighted its magnificent First Order Fresnel lens on August 31st, 1903.
Charlie Swan was no stranger to the area when he assumed his new duties as the head keeper. His father, Henry Swan, had been the captain of the Frying Pan Lightship and his son had visited him there. In addition Charlie Swan had visited both the families at the Life Saving Station on Bald Head Island and the keeper and his family of, what is now known as, the Old Baldy Lighthouse many times over the years. When Captain Charlie moved from the Little Cumberland Light Station in Georgia where he was the First Assistant Keeper to assume responsibility for the Cape Fear Lighthouse he brought his family with him. During his thirty years as head keeper his children grew up on Bald Head Island - sometimes living on the island and sometimes in the neighboring town of Southport. When he retired from the lighthouse service in April 1, 1933 he moved over to Southport to live in a house he had built with lumber that had washed up on Bald Head Island’s beaches. The house still stands there today on West Street. The stories from Captain Charlie’s children of life on the island were legion - from gathering loggerhead turtle eggs to staying out of the dense maritime forest to avoid the Yay-hoe (a bigfoot kind of creature) that Captain Charlie told his children would be sure to get them if they strayed into the undergrowth.
The Cape Fear Lighthouse was automated in 1935 so as the head keeper for 30 of those first 32 years the lighthouse really became Captain Charlie’s Lighthouse. In addition to the head keeper it was staffed with two assistant keepers because its platform served as a watch station during the day for ship wrecks. The wreck log for the life saving station on Bald Head Island (now on exhibit in the keeper’s cottage at the Old Baldy Lighthouse) indicates ships in distress that were first spotted by the keepers at the Cape Fear Lighthouse as well as the assistance they provided to the men of the lifesaving station.
A First Order Fresnel lens, such as the one installed at the top of the Cape Fear Lighthouse, was the largest lens made and was designed for coastal locations where the light had to shine far out to sea. Lighthouses are recognized during the day by their style of construction and painted patterns. At night they are recognized by their flash pattern and light color. According to the 1912 Department of Commerce and Labor "Light List Atlantic and Gulf Coasts of the United States" the Cape Fear Lighthouse flashed for 2.3 seconds, eclipsed for 7.7 repeating every 10 seconds for 6 flashes per minute, white light, 160,000 candlepower, visible for 19 nautical miles. However, Bald Head Island was not the first destination for the magnificent lens after its manufacture in France by the Henry-Lepaute Lens Works. The U.S. Lighthouse Service had an exhibit at the 1903 World’s Fair which was held in St. Louis to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana Purchase. The lens appears to have been planned as one of the highlights of the exhibit but, because the opening of the World’s Fair was delayed until April 1904, it would only have been on display in the days preceding the official opening.
In 1958 the construction on Oak Island just across the Cape Fear River of a new lighthouse with powerful optics led to the destruction of the Cape Fear Lighthouse. According to the local Southport paper it took 62 sticks of dynamite to demolish the lighthouse. The first blast knocked out four of its eight legs but the lighthouse continued to stand. Finally it was brought down. Today all that remains on its site are the concrete foundations for the legs. However, the First Order Fresnel Lens also survived. Before the lighthouse was demolished the lens was removed. It was taken from Bald Head Island to Wilmington, North Carolina and in 1968 was sold to Mr. Labriola who owned an antique shop on Oleander Drive. For the next forty years visitors to the Labriola Antique Store could buy individual prisms or bull’s eye panels but much of the original lens still remained. It has been a long term dream to bring the lens back to Bald Head Island. In the fall of 2008 an offer to purchase made by the Old Baldy Foundation (the non-profit organization chartered both to preserve the 1817 Old Baldy Lighthouse but also all man made history on Bald Head Island) was finally accepted. On Monday, March 2, 2009 the carefully crated lens panels were brought by barge ferry back to Bald Head Island. They are now being kept in a climate controlled facility pending restoration and eventual display.
So many decisions need to be made and work needs to be done (and paid for!) before that display becomes a reality. How will the Old Baldy Foundation replace those missing prisms - and should they be replaced or should the spaces be left empty to show what has happened to the lens over time? Outreach has already started to try to find those people who purchased individual prisms in the hope that they might be willing to donate them back. How will the restored lens be displayed - in a self contained pavilion or as part of larger museum space? What kinds of interpretive material should be included in such a display?
And then the monster question - how will the Old Baldy Foundation raise the money for all of this? Every summer the Old Baldy Foundation hosts a weekend long fund raiser - The Pirates Are Coming! This summer it will be held on Friday, July 31 to Sunday, August 2. The proceeds from the event this year will be dedicated to the start of work on the Fresnel lens. The weekend begins with a pirate ship sailing into the Bald Head Island marina Friday evening and continues with pirates camped out around the base of Old Baldy, learn to be a pirate camps for children, boat building workshops, skilled musicians singing sea faring songs, and educational entertainment for all ages. Some visitors come over for a day and others plan to spend the entire weekend on the island.
If you want any further information on programs please visit the Old Baldy website at www.oldbaldy.org. If you purchased one of the Fresnel lens prisms from Labriola Antiques in Wilmington, N.C. or know of anyone who might have, please contact the author at Kimgottshall@aol.com.
This story appeared in the
June 2009 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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