In the Galveston-Houston area, the indelible mark of the George P. Mitchell family is impossible to miss. The billionaire philanthropist, who died in 2013 at the age of 94, and his wife, the late Cynthia Woods Mitchell, dedicated their lives to transforming the community they loved. Their contributions spanned from education and historic preservation to groundbreaking medical research.
George P. Mitchell played a pivotal role in Galveston's revival. His generous $95 million donation to Texas A&M University, along with the gift of 135 acres of land for Texas A&M University at Galveston, was instrumental in the institution's existence.
Mitchell and his wife Cynthia revitalized Galveston by resurrecting Mardi Gras, purchasing then preserving more than 20 historic buildings throughout the Strand District, and renovating what are now the Grand Galvez and Tremont House hotels. They also are responsible for building Harbor House Hotel and the Pier 21 complex.
Mitchell was instrumental in developing the west end of the island also by building the Pirates Beach, Pirates Cove and Indian Beach communities. Following Hurricane Ike in 2008, he spearheaded rebuilding efforts.
After Cynthia's death in 2009 due to Alzheimer's Disease, George directed his resources towards Alzheimer's research. He funded Dr. Claudio A. Soto's work at the George and Cynthia Mitchell Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases and established the George P. and Cynthia Mitchell Center for Research on Alzheimer's Disease and Related Brain Disorders at The University of Texas Health Science Center.
George P. Mitchell's enduring legacy is marked by his transformative impact on education, Galveston, and Alzheimer's research.
But the visionary’s impact reaches far beyond Galveston, shaping the landscape, and future, of a secluded paradise situated approximately 1,200 miles to the east of Galveston. Located in the mouth of Cape Fear River, off the southern coast of North Carolina, is George P. Mitchell’s “other island.”
Originally known as Smith Island, Bald Head Island spans a combined area of 5.8 square miles, of which 3.9 square miles consist of land and 1.9 square miles are covered by water. Within its boundaries, you can find three unspoiled beaches, lush foliage, maritime forests filled with gnarled live oaks and swaying palmettos, and a thriving sea turtle population.
Also located on the island is Old Baldy, an iconic lighthouse built in 1817. The 109-foot structure is North Carolina’s oldest surviving lighthouse.
A haven for a variety of avian species - including herons, egrets, and ibises - the isle’s eco-friendly charm is heightened by its diverse selection of boutiques and dining spots, tennis courts, a golf course, and a beach club that blends Caribbean influences and southern charm.
But this wasn't always the landscape of the terrain located at approximately 33.8611 degrees north latitude and 77.9936 degrees west longitude. Once, it languished in near obscurity, appearing as a seemingly inconsequential land mass with no discernible purpose for anyone.
Enter the Mitchell family, when sons Mark and Kent fortuitously came across the undeveloped island.
“Kent and I were living in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina, just up the coast from Bald Head Island. A friend of ours who grew up in nearby Southport told us we really needed to see the island, and he took us there in his boat,” Mark Mitchell said.
“We dropped anchor off East Beach near the cape, paddled in, and surfed along East Beach. Then we walked down the beach and around the cape to Captain Charlie’s Station, three lighthouse keepers’ cottages from the turn of the century, which were partly in ruin. We hiked along Federal Road through the maritime forest until we could see Old Baldy Lighthouse in the distance. We found it amazing and were in awe of the beauty.”
After conducting their initial tour, they took the boat back to the creek side and engaged in a conversation with a sales representative for the development company.
“At first, we discussed purchasing a few lots that we could build our own homes on and have friends buy into. We also discussed expanding an existing multi-family project or creating a small new neighborhood,” Kent said.
“Not long after that, Walter Davis, an oilman from Midland, Texas - a contemporary of our father and the owner of the undeveloped parts of the island - invited us to have dinner on his yacht, which was docked at a marina in downtown Wilmington.”
Shortly thereafter, the family patriarch reached out to Davis to deliberate on the prospects for their secluded and untouched paradise.
“Walter said, ‘George, I enjoyed meeting your sons. They seem like fine young men. But I’m a little confused. Do they want to buy a couple of lots or the whole damn island?’,” Mark recalled. “Our dad said, ‘Well, are you interested in selling the whole damn thing?’”
Roughly a month later, a painstaking title search was conducted, involving the meticulous tracking down of handwritten deeds dating all the way back to Benjamin Smith's acquisition of the island in 1713. Following this exhaustive process, the Mitchell family successfully sealed the deal on June 14, 1983.
One of their first acts was the founding of Bald Head Island Ltd., signifying the commencement of the island's shift from an isolated paradise into a residential resort exclusively reachable by a 20-minute ferry ride or private boat.
The decision was made early to not build a bridge from the mainland, preserve the maritime forests, and permit electric vehicles only as the primary mode of transportation for residents. Golf carts and bicycles are the dominant means of transportation on the island.
The maximum allowable speed on the island is 18 miles per hour. They also brought electricity to the island.
“We developed a vision statement, ‘To create a viable premier island community where people may live in harmony with nature and each other,’ which still guides our decision-making today,” Mark said.
They sought inspiration from their father's groundbreaking and innovative community, The Woodlands, situated to the north of Houston. This meticulously planned residential development has long been considered the pinnacle of excellence. In 2024, The Woodlands will celebrate its 50th year as a thriving township.
“We were exposed to people like Ian McHarg, who wrote ‘Design with Nature,’ and various other philosophers and critical thinkers who blazed the trail for environmentally sensitive planning,” Kent said.
“Early in our tenure, our lead planner produced a development document that emphasized natural landscaping with native plants and a prohibition of lawns at homes,” he said.
The Mitchells demonstrated profound dedication to conservation by gifting a significant portion of land encompassing 10,000 acres of marshes and uplands.
“In the early days, our family donated land and funds to help establish the Bald Head Island Conservancy and Old Baldy Foundation, the island’s ecology and history caretakers,” Mark said.
“We donated the land on which the nondenominational Bald Head Island Chapel was built. Those organizations remain the beating heart of the island community.”
The choice was made to place a primary emphasis on the development of single-family neighborhoods instead of the prevalent practice of erecting mid- or high-rise buildings in beachside communities. They also contributed land for creating buffer zones and setbacks from the ocean and creeks.
“One of the most important planning and programming things that created a unique sense of place is that Bald Head Island was envisioned as a family-oriented retreat from day one,” Mark said.
“Of course, it’s difficult not to be family oriented when you come from a family of 10 kids. We chose to pursue a low-density community where the 1817 ‘Old Baldy’ Lighthouse was the only high-rise. As time goes on, these decisions have helped create a community that becomes rarer every year.”
A substantial portion of the building's architectural style is credited to Dan Costa and Chuck Dietsche, planners and architects who played a pivotal role in shaping the visual identity of the island's communities during its formative phases.
“Chuck was the one who used the term ‘eco-romanticism’ to describe what we were trying to accomplish here - celebrating man’s place within the environment and appreciating nature’s ability to inspire and even heal us,” Kent said.
In the realm of land planning, especially when considering Cape Fear Station, they embarked on a comprehensive research endeavor encompassing diverse elements such as wildlife pathways, terrain characteristics, significant tree species, vegetation types, drainage patterns, and more.
“There were probably 20 significant studies done on a variety of planning issues. It was essential to undertake everything this way because the land we were dealing with was not replaceable. The vast maritime forest is scarce on the East Coast of the U.S. You cannot replicate a Bald Head Island. The natural environment on this cape island is so different from the mainland or even other barrier islands that are just thin ribbons of beach,” Mark said.
“The maritime forest is even different from the other capes of North Carolina, as our forest is predominantly evergreen, while the ones farther north are more deciduous.”
At one point, they contemplated the idea of introducing a high-end boutique hotel on the island, but those intentions never came to fruition, partly due to challenging market conditions and complexities involved in larger construction projects.
“A luxury hotel likely would have attracted a different clientele with different expectations in terms of service levels and activities,” Mark said. “As it is, the island is laid back and family oriented, and almost all pastimes revolve around nature and the outdoors and gathering of family and friends. One of the main reasons I think people are attracted to Bald Head Island is it’s an authentic community that has evolved over many years. It changes every year, but in very organic ways. And it only gets better with time.”
What lies ahead for the future of Bald Island? The Mitchell family's vision is to ignite a spirit of entrepreneurship among property owners, fostering the growth of independent businesses and job prospects within the community. In recent times, the island has witnessed remarkable expansion.
Bald Head Island Limited, LLC., owned by the Mitchell family, recently sold the Bald Island Ferry System and is facilitating the sale of the remaining commercial properties on the island, ultimately striving for self-sufficiency with the assistance of external entrepreneurs, as the family gradually reduces its involvement.
“We always intended for the island to become self-sustaining, and third-party entrepreneurs are key to ensuring a smooth transition as our family’s involvement continues to wind down,” Kent said.
For the Mitchells, it’s been gratifying to see multiple generations of families relishing what was initially just a dream - a family-friendly retreat, seamlessly combining contemporary conveniences with unspoiled nature. They intended Bald Head Island to stand as an ideal fusion of adventure and serenity, catering to those in search of both thrills and peace, and it does.
“The island has allowed families to develop traditions that they carry on, which is so rewarding for us to see,” Mark said. “It’s something we hoped for when we first set out to develop the island, but it’s happened to a degree that I don’t think we ever imagined possible.”
For more information about Bald Head Island, visit www.baldheadisland.com.