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Topsail Island, North Carolina

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 bridge.

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 atmosphere.

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 17.

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.







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 Wilmington Fishing Charters provides service in the Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach areas of NC, including Bald Head Island Southport & Topsail Island.

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