The Village's history is peppered with colorful people and
connections. Through the years, the island has been a breeding ground
for wild boar, a prime hangout for bootleggers, a supplier of
materials for cedar pencils, a Civil War fort, a nesting ground for
loggerhead turtles, and a produce farm and fruit orchard. Pirates,
lighthouse keepers, Indians, river pilots, ruffians, soldiers,
farmers, and entrepreneurs of all types have come and gone, and yet,
the Village's essence is unchanged. This can only be because the
island itself is a living thing, with its own integrity and spirit,
its wild beauty more or less disregarding man's inclination to tinker.
In the 17th and 18 h centuries, when pirates ruled the waters off the
coast of North Carolina with greed and terror, the Village was a
favorite refuge and base for the notorious buccaneers. In all, the
waters surrounding Cape Fear were a hideaway for hundreds of pirates,
the most famous of which were Edward Teach, better known as
Blackbeard, and Stede Bonnet, the gentlemen pirate.
Bonnet, the so-called "Gentlemen Pirate" from Barbados, was an
educated retired military officer who turned to piracy in 1717 as a
second career in order to escape what one historian tactfully referred
to as "the discomforts he found in a married state." During his short
stint as a pirate, Bonnet terrorized the Carolina and Virginia coasts
aboard his sailing sloop Revenge with
10 guns and 70 men. For a brief time, Bonnet even linked up with
Blackbeard, a pirate who never carried the title "gentlemen." In 1718
Blackbeard was cornered and killed aboard his sloop, Adventure ,
by two warships sent by the governor of Virginia. Just three weeks
later, Bonnet was captured at Bonnet's Creek in Southport by Colonel
William Rhett of South Carolina and hanged near Charlestown. Their
deaths marked a dramatic end to the Golden Age of Piracy in North
Long before pirates ever discovered the Village's nooks and crannies,
Native Americans hunted Bald Head Island and fished its surrounding
waters in the spring and summer while maintaining permanent
settlements on the mainland. The island was, in effect, a seasonal
retreat for the Native Americans when supplies of corn or grain began
Early river pilots were responsible for giving the Village its unique
and descriptive name. Eager to offer their navigational services to
ships approaching the entrance to the Cape Fear River, they took up
watch on a high dune headland on the southwest point on the island.
According to local lore, the headland was worn bare of vegetation,
making it stand out in contrast to the forest behind it. This "bald"
headland served as a reference point for ships entering the river, and
the name Bald Head Island has endured.
The year 1817 saw the construction of the island's most revered
landmark and symbol, Old Baldy Lighthouse. Still the island's only "highrise,"
Old Baldy lighthouse was the second of three lighthouses built on Bald
Head Island, and is the only one remaining. In 1903, the lighthouse
was decommissioned when the Cape Fear Light was erected on the eastern
end of the island, but it still serves as a prominent day marker for
mariners. Due to restoration efforts by the Old Baldy Foundation and
the generosity of hundreds of contributors, visitors to North
Carolina's oldest lighthouse can climb up her 108 steps for a
spectacular panoramic view of Bald Head Island.
The foundation of the Cape Fear Light can still be seen at the end of
Federal Road across from three lightkeeper's cottages known as Captain
Charlie's Station, after Captain Charles Norton Swan, a lighthouse
keeper who lived with his family on Bald Head Island from 1903 until
1933. Captain Charlie's Station is listed in the National Register of
Historic Places, and still commands a sweeping view of the dunes and
sea at the island's southeastern point.
In addition to lightkeepers, in the late 19 th and early 20 th
centuries the island was home to members of the U.S. Lifesaving
Service, the predecessor to the modern day Coast Guard. Several
buildings on the southeastern shore of the island overlooking Frying
Pan Shoals served as equipment storage and housing for the servicemen.
The only remaining Lifesaving Station structure is a boathouse that
was moved from the beachfront to back among the dunes where it is now
a private residence.
Another symbol of the past presence of lightkeepers and lifesaving
servicemen on the island is the Old Boat House on Bald Head Creek,
built in 1903 to store supplies and boats. A dramatic change in the
shape of the creek channel over the last ninety years makes it appear
to have moved several hundred yards.
The most notable feature on the 1864 Blackford map (established by
B.L. Blackford) was Fort Holmes, located on the Bald Head promontory
at the southwest corner of the island. Most of what we know regarding
the fort can be gathered from a detailed sketch of its layout prepared
in 1865. In addition, several firsthand accounts prepared by officers
at Fort Holmes are extant. The fort had been hurriedly erected in 1863
and 1864 as part of a defense system for the lower Cape Fear. The
string of forts from Bald Head to Wilmington kept the river, the
"lifeline of the Confederacy," open for blockade runners. Given the
presence of two navigable entrances, that at Bald Head and a second
above Smith Island at New Inlet, the river was ideal for such traffic.
The sketch of Fort Holmes prepared by Federal occupation forces in
1865 indicates that the earthen breastworks extended the width of the
island from the lighthouse to the southwest tip at Bald Head. A road
to the opposite end of the island ran through the upper part of the
fort. The earthen works, it was noted, were reinforced with palmetto
and oak logs. Four batteries extended along the east side of the fort.
The fifth and largest, Battery Holmes, with bombproof magazines, was
at the island's southwesternmost point. A flagstaff was positioned on
the Bald Head promontory. Quarters and storehouses were located in
several spots inside the fort.
Despite subtle shifts in sand and sea, Bald Head Island remains much
as it was centuries ago. It still serves as a natural sanctuary for
educators and students interested in coastal ecology, a home for a
special breed of permanent residents that share a kinship of spirit
with the hardy, independent lightkeepers and servicemen of days long
past, and a refuge for vacationers seeking privacy and rejuvenation in
a beautiful, relaxed setting.