By Lee Scott
About Topsail Island NC
Topsail Island is a gem in the ruff, a island paradise where vacationers and locals alike can escape from the day to day grind of work and city life. Topsail pronounced locally as “TOP-Sul” or “Top-sill” is a 26 mile long barrier island just off the coast of North Carolina. It lies just south of Camp Lejeune and Jacksonville and a bit north of Wilmington. Topsail can be divided into three major communities North Topsail Beach, Surf City and South Topsail Beach. Topsail is separated from the mainland by the Intracoastal Waterway, commonly referred to as the ICW, and the manny sounds that are teaming with fish. While visitors flock to the beach to enjoy the ocean many locals prefer the tranquil water of the sound and beautiful color of the marshes. In my option as a local nothing beats the view of the marshes as they turn red in late october and winter sunsets over still water. People come to Topsail for the roaring ocean and sandy beaches but stay for the incredible fishing and easy lifestyle. I love Topsail it is a place I am proud to call my home and even after traveling all over the world there is still no place I would rather call be.
“We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch – we are going back from whence we came” – John F. Kennedy
History of Topsail Beach
When talking about the history of Topsail there are three things that always have to be mentioned. The iconic swing bridge, the Military and Blackbeard’s infamous buried treasure. I will start off with the last of these three because I am sure you more than a bit curious about finding the hidden treasure of the most notorious pirate of all time. Ever since I was a kid it’s been a fact not a local legend that Blackbeard’s hidden treasure is on Topsail. I have even heard tales of people going around with metal detectors looking for the infamous treasures only to find live missiles, more on this later.
In the early 1700’s topsail was a uninhabitable thick maritime forest save for a fishing shack or two. But the many sounds provided a safe haven from the ocean for boats to dock or travel by. Queen Anne had run into some financial troubles and had to let go her army of privateers. These men turned to stealing for themselves and the sounds of North Carolina where as ripe as anywhere with trade ships. Pirates expertes of navigating the shallow shoals and inlets of Topsail would hide out and wait for unaware ships to sail past them before boarding them. Over time shipping sailors learned the area was a hotbed for pirate ambushes and they began scanning the treetops for the topsail of the ship. When one was spotted everyone would scream “Topsail!” Some say you can still see the ghost ship of blackbeard prowling Banks Channel on foggy nights. There is a bit more to this story and you can read the whole thing on my blog here.
Prior to the second World War Topsail was completely shut off from the real world and only accessible by boat. During the early 20th century only a few fishing outpost and hunters lodges stood on Topsail. At the start of WWII the US army began construction on a large training base at modern day Holly Ridge, just north off the island from the Surf City bridge. This temporary anti-aircraft training base was known as Camp Davis and they took control of Topsail Island. They build a pontoon bridge across the ICW where the swing bridge was located. They then built support facilities in what is the modern day Surf City business district. Once the war was over the US Navy took possession of the island and began a joint project with Johns Hopkins University. This top-secret project was referred to as Operation Bumblebee and on the very soil that is now the IGA and Waves ramjet missiles were created and tested. These missiles and the test that followed lead to the advancement of supersonic jets designs that played a significant role in the US reaching the moon. The military built eight towers seven of which still stand today to observer the missile tests. The concrete patio of the Jolly Rogers Motel is actually in fact the launch pad. If you are luck, or unlucky depending on how you look at it, you can still find long forgotten missiles buried in the sand, tho the odd are extremely unlikely. The missiles and more museum on topsail has some great information and exhibits. You can learn just about anything you want to learn about operation bumblebee and the military there.
The Swing Bridge was a iconic landmark that connected mainland North Carolina to Topsail island for over 60 years. Built in 1955 the swing bridge was the last remaining thruss swing bridge on the Intracoastal Waterway in North Carolina. It was also the newest extant truss swing bridge and had the longest span. Four generations of travelers have crossed the swing bridge on there way to the beach and while it may have not been convenient to plan every route to and from the mainland around the turn of the hour I for one miss the old rust bucket. The old swing bridge sat just south of where the new Surf City high rise bridge is jetting out from Sears Landing over the ICW. A nearby park has a wooden bridge that crosses over marshlands built in the likeness of the old swing bridge that you can stroll across.