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[caption id="attachment_183551" align="alignright" width="300"] Jake Grossman[/caption] Historian Jake Grossman dons a white cotton glove and tenderly removes the glass from its bubble wrap. Shaped like a Toblerone bar, the prism

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[caption id="attachment_183551" align="alignright" width="300"] Jake Grossman[/caption] Historian Jake Grossman dons a white cotton glove and tenderly removes the glass from its bubble wrap. Shaped like a Toblerone bar, the prism

Jake Grossman holds one of the prisms for the Cape Fear Lighthouse's lens

Jake Grossman photograph by MALLORY CASH

Historian Jake Grossman dons a white cotton glove and tenderly removes the glass from its bubble wrap. Shaped like a Toblerone bar, the prism weighs about two pounds and, when held to your eye, contorts the room, as if the walls are melting.

This is one of the prisms recovered from the three-ton, 18-foot-tall Fresnel lens that once crowned the Cape Fear Lighthouse. “Getting 100 percent of the lens is a bit of a pipe dream, but it would be so cool to be able to interpret the history of each individual pane,” Grossman says. “And to have guests watching as the lens is being put back together.”

Reconstructing the Fresnel lens is a daunting undertaking. There were originally around 1,000 prisms; to complete the set, The Old Baldy Foundation, which is restoring the lens, still needs to find about two-thirds of them.

The Cape Fear Lighthouse stood on Bald Head Island for more than half a century. Then in 1958, the Oak Island Lighthouse was built, making the Cape Fear Lighthouse redundant — at least in the eyes of the U.S. Coast Guard.

Chris Webb

Chris Webb photograph by MALLORY CASH

When the federal government had the Cape Fear Lighthouse demolished, the contractor had the sense to preserve the Fresnel lens, which ended up at a Wilmington antiques shop. Eventually, pieces of the lens were sold; once torn asunder, the individual prisms and larger bull’s-eye-shaped glass panels were strewn across North Carolina and beyond. At auctions and private sales, the prisms were bought by lighthouse aficionados, as well as those who, unaware of their provenance, admired them for their inherent beauty.

The Old Baldy Foundation, which educates visitors about the history of Bald Head Island, its artifacts, and its lighthouses — both the existing Old Baldy and the erstwhile Cape Fear — formed a Fresnel Lens Committee. “The lens committee thought that putting it back together with what we had was part of the story of this artifact,” says the foundation’s executive director, Chris Webb. “We should put together what we have and try to recover pieces of it from the public.”

• • •

The Cape Fear Lighthouse towered 150 feet on wrought-iron-and-steel supports over southeastern Bald Head Island, topped by its first-order Fresnel lens — the biggest and brightest type. By comparison, sixth-order lenses are much smaller, project shorter distances, and are used in the comparatively safer confines of calm harbors.

Before it was built, too many ships — the Raritan, Virginius, and George Weems among them — had foundered and sunk on Frying Pan Shoals. The underwater ridge, made of sand and silt disgorged from the Cape Fear River, extends 18 miles from southeastern Bald Head Island.

“The shoals forming the continuation of this cape for about 18 miles to the southeast are dreaded by shipmasters only a little less than those at Cape Hatteras,” read the Annual Report of the Light-House Board for 1889.

The site where the Cape Fear Lighthouse stood today neighbors Bald Head Island’s ferry terminal. Photography courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

The Cape Fear Lighthouse, the board hoped, would provide ships with safe passage.

Although a lightship had been deployed on the outer extremities of the shoals, the board determined that it didn’t provide adequate protection to the large number of boats traveling to the neighboring port of Wilmington.

The Cape Fear Lighthouse would provide that most-needed light. Projected through the prisms of its Fresnel lens, the light could be seen more than 18 miles away.

The foundation where the Cape Fear Lighthouse stood.

After being decommissioned, the Cape Fear Lighthouse was demolished. All that remain are its foundation and hundreds of prisms from its massive lens. photograph by MALLORY CASH

Despite the colorful history of the prisms, a hunk of glass could seem unremarkable among the cache of beach memorabilia at an antiques shop or a coastal estate sale. Labriola’s Antiques in Wilmington sold some of the prisms and the enormous steel base that held the lens to The Old Baldy Foundation.

The rest of the collection has come from the public, often from people who don’t initially realize what they have. Some prisms have been used as paperweights. Others were found beneath a bed. One person had used a bull’s-eye panel as a coffee table; when the sunlight hit it, it burned a hole in the carpet.

“It’s random where you find them,” Webb says.

• • •

The Fresnel lens was invented in 1822 by its namesake, Augustin Fresnel, who envisioned a device that would refract light both horizontally and vertically through its prisms. This would be more powerful than merely a steady beam, which often caused confusion and dangerous conditions for passing ships since it was difficult to distinguish one light from another. But the Fresnel lens could produce an almost unlimited combination of patterns, depending on the number of installed flash panels and the speed that the lens revolved. With individual flash patterns, ship captains can more easily identify different lighthouses along the same coast.

At the Cape Fear Lighthouse, the lens was cushioned within a steel mount that rotated so that the light pulsated like a disco ball. “You can imagine being in a dark room, and then suddenly someone turns on a light and turns it off,” Grossman says. “It makes it a little bit more noticeable. But getting hundreds of those glass prisms to rotate uniformly was not easy.”

Smith Island Museum of History

The former keepers’ cottage at Old Baldy Lighthouse is now home to the Smith Island Museum of History, which displays artifacts as well as a replica of the Cape Fear Lighthouse lens. photograph by MALLORY CASH

Replica of the Cape Fear Lighthouse lens.

Inside the Smith Island Museum, visitors will find this replica of the Cape Fear Lighthouse lens. photograph by MALLORY CASH

To ensure that the rotation was uniform and smooth, Fresnel proposed using mercury instead of rollers at the bottom of the mount, which made the lens “frictionless and weightless,” Grossman says. The original lens chariot for the Cape Fear Lighthouse was replaced with a mercury float in 1920.

Unfortunately, mercury is toxic. Yet as much as 500 pounds of mercury was used as a bath in the basin of a first-order lens. Lighthouse keepers could suffer irreversible neurological problems from repeatedly touching the mercury or inhaling its vapors.

Jim Woodward, a lampist and lighthouse consultant, travels the U.S. and Canada, repairing and maintaining the Fresnel lenses and removing the mercury from the basins. As navigation technology has developed and become more precise, “the classical Fresnel lens started to decline, and it didn’t require the services of lampists,” Woodward says in a short film on the subject. “It would be a shame to let the profession die because in the process, eventually, the lenses themselves will die.”

• • •

Today, the site of the Cape Fear Lighthouse is honored with a historical marker, while a couple of miles away stands the Bald Head Island Light — known colloquially as Old Baldy ­— a 110-foot octagonal tower built 207 years ago of brick and stucco.

Although Old Baldy no longer guides ships to safety, it still stands, having survived the vicissitudes of the Coast Guard and vicious coastal storms. Now that repairs are finished — Old Baldy took a direct hit from Hurricane Florence six years ago — visitors can once again climb its 108 steps and take in the breathtaking view of maritime forests, old Civil War forts, and the vast Atlantic.

One can only imagine what it would have been like 120 years ago, to be a disoriented ship’s captain on the roiling sea, under the clouds or a new moon, groping one’s way through the inky blackness. And then, 18 miles away, the distant beacon of the Cape Fear Lighthouse: through the hundreds of prisms, a quivering light that served as a warning — and a comfort — that land lay nearby. — Lisa Sorg

Know the whereabouts of a prism from the old Cape Fear Lighthouse? Email director@oldbaldy.org or call (910) 457-7481.

Bald Head Lighthouse
101 Light House Wynd
Bald Head Island, NC 28461
(910) 457-7481

Bald Head Island Lighthouse

First lit in 1817, the Bald Head Lighthouse — affectionately known as “Old Baldy” — is North Carolina’s oldest. Its mottled exterior is distinctive, but not original: It was first painted all black. photograph by MALLORY CASH

A Place of Honor

As the Old Baldy Foundation works to rebuild the Cape Fear Lighthouse’s Fresnel lens, the organization has also been developing a place to display it. A planned expansion of the Bald Head Lighthouse campus, expected to break ground this year, will provide much-needed space to house the 18-foot-tall lens and other artifacts from Bald Head Island, including a century-old uniform from the U.S. Lighthouse Service, a rudder from a Spanish galleon that wrecked offshore, a logbook from the Cape Fear Life-Saving Station, and pottery found on the grounds of Old Baldy.

Many of the artifacts are currently housed in storage or in the 1,000-square-foot keepers’ cottage, which simultaneously serves as an office, a gift shop, and a museum. Built around the sprawling live oaks and integrating with the natural landscape, the new campus will include an interpretive center that will not only display these objects but also contextualize them, telling a more comprehensive history of Bald Head Island and its two historic lights. — Katie King

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This story was published on May 14, 2024

Lisa Sorg

Lisa Sorg is an environmental reporter for NC Newsline.

Katie King

Katie King is a managing editor at Our State.