The Frying Pan Shoals Light Tower sits in forty feet of water at the merging point of the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, twenty-eight miles offshore.
Built in 1964, its towers rise forty feet above the water. The station was completely automated, with a foghorn, a radio beacon, and an automated light that is visible for seventeen miles.
From 1854 to 1964, before the light tower, a lightship was anchored at the shoals. The lightship—a manned vessel— was deemed impractical because of hurricanes, and it was replaced by the light tower, which did not involve such a risk to human life.
The decommissioned lightship Frying Pan (designated LV 115) is still in existence, one of thirteen lightships remaining fro more than a hundred built for the U.S. Coast Guard.
From 1930 to 1965 it guarded its namesake, Frying Pan Shoals, off of Cape Fear. She is 133 feet 3 inches long and 30 feet wide and weighs 632 gross tons.
Now permanently docked at a pier on the Hudson River in New York City, the Frying Pan serves as an entertainment venue. Originally put into service in 1930, the ship is listed on both the New York State and Federal Registers of Historic Places.
Lightships were used by the Coast Guard as floating lighthouses. They prevented other ships from running aground on shoals or submerged rocks that were too far from land to be served by a lighthouse onshore.
The entrances to many harbors were marked by lightships. The hulls of these ships were designed with a unique shape to withstand the numerous storms and hurricanes that required other ships to seek safe harbor.
A crew of fifteen kept the light atop the mast burning and the foghorn sounding regardless of the weather, season, or time of day.
The men remained aboard for three months then received two months of shore leave. It was a job, according to one report, “filled with months of boredom followed by minutes of pure fear.”
The old lightship Frying Pan has led a remarkable life. Retired in 1965 and donated for a museum exhibit in Southport, she lay for years at anchor, rusting, first in North Carolina, and then at an old oyster cannery in the Chesapeake Bay.
The ship was sold in 1984 but sank on her way northward—probably due to a broken pipe after being abandoned for so long.
The Frying Pan was raised and salvaged three years later and sold to its present owner instead of being scrapped.
Tons of silt and shells were removed from the hull, and a new engine was installed. The old ship was then sailed to Manhattan, where she rests at her current home at the Chelsea Piers.
The outside has been largely restored to its original appearance, but she remains rusted and barnacle-encrusted on the inside—no deterrent to visitors today.