If you like the beach atmosphere without a lot of commercialization,
it’s right here at Topsail Island. With three towns in which to choose
from, North Topsail Beach, Town of Surf City and Town of Topsail
Beach, your perfect vacation spot or second home is just over the
Topsail Island is what dreams are made of. Over twenty-six miles of
white Carolina sand, this island is enriched with a unique history.
With it’s eye on the future, Topsail Island promises to be just what
it is today, a family-oriented spot, sunbathed in a laid back
Lying on the eastern coastline of North Carolina, perfectly set within
thirty minutes in either direction to Jacksonville and Wilmington,
it’s been said that Topsail achieved it’s name from a rather unique
source, pirates. Blackbeard himself was rumored to roam the island,
making his way to Ocracoke. As ships would pass offshore, the tall
pirate ship’s masts could be seen in the distance, thus the name of
Top-sail, (pronounced Top-sul by most). Of course, this is part of the
mysterious legend of the island.
When the high sails could be seen waving in the distance, oncoming
ships quickly turned around to flee from a possible confrontation. Not
many wanted to come face-to-face with savage pirates, especially if
they thought it was Blackbeard’s flagship, the Queen Anne’s Revenge.
Blackbeard’s “fleet” normally consisted of four ships, Queen Anne’s
Revenge, the Adventure, the Revenge (which he took from another local
pirate, Stede Bonnet) and a tender, which served the other three. He
had at least forty guns, or blunderbusses, mounted on the deck of the
renamed Queen Anne after he captured it in the Bahamas in 1717. All
three main vessels were fighting ships with nearly three hundred men
aboard. They were definitely a source to be reckoned with, but only
for a little over two years. Though his reign was a short one, it has
long been a swashbuckler’s legend of evil doings, with the story
ending right here off the coast of North Carolina!
Funny enough, even though Blackbeard had such a bad reputation, no one
is said to have been murdered by him during a raid. The flag he flew
aboard his ship did not just have the typical “pirate” symbols of a
skull and crossbones, it also had a red heart within the design, which
was the sign for mercy.
Talk about psychological warfare. “Blackbeard” was actually Richard
Drummond (later changed to variations of Teach), born in Bristol,
England around 1680.
Another significant piece of history for Topsail Island was the
Tucscarora Indians. The evidence of prehistoric Indian villages and
artifacts date back thousands of years. In the 1700s, they were known
to have made hunting trips to Topsail Island. You can still find
arrowheads made by the Tucscarora Indians all over the island.
By the 1800s, the area was known for it’s salt works, which produced
salt for meat preservation during the Civil War. The salt mine was
located in Sloop Point, between Holly Ridge and Hampstead off Highway
At that time and up until the 1940’s, Topsail Island was not
accessible by automobile. It was mostly used by farmers for their
cattle to graze. The herds were moved to and from the island when the
tide was low. It was also used for fishing camps by the locals.
During the 1940’s, the island began to see a lot of changes. By that
time, civilization was in it’s beginning stages to mold it into what
it is today.
The U.S. Navy picked Topsail, particularly the Topsail Beach area, as
their site for Operation Bumblebee. The Holly Ridge area housed Camp
Davis, which literally led to a somewhat short-lived boomtown
scenario. During Operation Bumblebee, nearly 200 experimental missiles
were launched down the island resulting in the ramjet engine, which
eventually allowed aircraft to push past the speed of sound.
Incidentally, Operation Bumblebee got it’s name from just that, the
flight of the bumblebee. According to the aerodynamic experts, because
of it’s structure, the bumblebee should not be able to fly. Of course,
the bumblebee doesn’t know this and flies anyway. Such was the case of
the experimental missiles.
There are many observation towers, which were used to track the
missiles during flight. These are the small, three story block
structures you see found scattered around the island. Some have been
refurbished and one has even been added to a home in the Topsail Beach
area. That one in particular was kept authentic with little remodeling
in order to keep the integrity of the past.
The Assembly Building, located in downtown Topsail Beach, housed the
missiles during Operation Bumblebee. Today, the Missiles and More
Museum displays much of the island’s history inside including many
artifacts of the old military presence as well as exhibits from
prehistory to the present.
The museum is a project of The Historical Society and one that is
taken very seriously. A recent expansion of the museum now allows for
more of the island’s history to be available for view and it’s a great
way to spend an afternoon.
Even though the island was, for the most part, controlled by the Navy
during the missile development phase, some good things happened, too.
A pontoon bridge was assembled so that traffic could get onto the
island better. Although somewhat crude compared to what there is
today, the bridge was a definite asset. Soon after, electricity, water
wells and passable roads followed.
As Operation Bumblebee came to an end around 1948, the military
relinquished control of Topsail Island. By that time, others had taken
notice and permanent residents began to appear. The three present
towns were eventually incorporated with Surf City being the first in
1949 followed by Topsail Beach in 1963 and finally, North Topsail
Beach in 1990.
Since then, Topsail has continued to lure beach lovers from all over
the world. Whether it’s the white sand tickling your toes as the waves
wash ashore, the gentle waters of the sound or just the fun, beach
atmosphere, Topsail Island is truly the island dreams are made of.
With only one stoplight on the entire island, the only stress factor
to contend with is getting caught at the swing bridge at the top of
every hour to let the boats pass by.
So pack your bags, throw in the flip-flops and head for Topsail
Island. Don’t forget to keep the watch at home. You won’t need it
here. You’re on island time now.
See you soon!
For a more detailed chronicle of history of the Topsail area, pick up
a copy of David Stallman’s Echo’s of Topsail (available from
Amazon.com) It is an intriguing and extremely thorough review on the
history of Topsail. It’s an excellent read and a publication that is a
must for anyone with an interest in Topsail. You will also find BJ
Cothran’s "Images of America: Topsail Island" a wonderful way
to reminisce through Topsail’s past.