A Brief Guide to Topsail Island's Unique History

Topsail Island is a unique and beautiful place to vacation. It only takes one brief visit and Topsail Island will be part of your soul. While we are certainly deserving of our reputation for having pristine beaches, a family-friendly atmosphere, and world-class fishing, there is so much more than meets the eye. If you look closely you can catch glimpses of Topsail Island's history. Not to give too much away, but if you are a real history buff we'll let you in on a few amazing Topsail Island vacation rentals you won't want to miss. Don't worry there won't be a quiz at the end of this post. Come along with us as we share a little bit about Topsail Island you might never have known about.


Say it like a local.

It happens there is a correct way to say Topsail. Surprisingly there is not a lot of research about how the pronunciation of Topsail came to be if you want to sound like a local, here is the way to pronounce Topsail correctly. The proper way is by dropping the "sail" sound in the name. When you do this you end up with a "Tops'l" almost making the sail sound like" sul". Plus, it just sounds nice and there is something comfortable and informal about the local dialect.

The naming of an Island.

How Topsail Island got its name is not exactly known. The most popular legend involves pirates. 

From around 1630 to 1720 the North Carolina coast was famous, or maybe we should say infamous, and not for our beautiful beaches, but for pirates. The barrier islands of North Carolina were the perfect place for pirates to hide from the authorities. Legend has it that such famous pirates as Blackbeard hid right here in the local waters. Some say the name Topsail derives from the pirates hiding their ships behind the local islands leaving only their "Topsails" showing from the sea. Fact or fiction, we'll let you decide but you should know Blackbeard's ship the Queen Anne's Revenge, was found not far from Topsail Island in nearby Beaufort, NC.  Speaking of fact or fiction, legend has it that Blackbeard buried a large treasure of gold here on Topsail Island in a spot called the "Gold Hole".

Native American presence on Topsail Island.

For much of Topsail's history, it was an uninhabited island covered with thick forests and coastal plains. It was the perfect place to hunt, fish, or allow livestock to graze. Unlike most of the barrier islands off the North Carolina coast, there was almost no permanent presence on Topsail Island until the outbreak of WWII. Prior to this time, the only access to the island was by boat. Locals would fish, picnic, and swim the Island. It is even said that locals would ferry livestock daily to the island to graze the nutrient-rich seagrass which was in abundance on the undisturbed island.

Unlike today, where we seek out oceanfront property and relax by the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean, Native Americans viewed the sea and the barrier islands such as Topsail Island in a much different light. The most frequent Native Americans to visit Topsail Island were the Tuscarora people. Known as "the hemp people" the Tuscarora did not make permanent settlements on Topsail Island due to the volatility of the weather of the exposed island. However, the Tuscarora used the island as a place to hunt and fish

An Island and nation at war.

At the outbreak of World War II Topsail Island was still a sleepy island. Travel to and from the island required a boat. However, as with so many communities throughout the United States, and particularly along the North Carolina coast, Topsail Island and the surrounding area was to play a key part in the war.

Anti-Aircraft Batteries

Fort Davis located in Holly Ridge, (approx. 10 miles inland) was a training base for anti-aircraft artillery units. During the war, soldiers built a floating bridge (now the site of the swing bridge) allowing the troops access to the island. Soon Topsail Island was home to several anti-aircraft artillery batteries. These batteries were primarily used for all three elements of coastal defense training; barrage balloon training, seacoast defense, and anti-aircraft artillery. 


The Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) was an all-volunteer unit comprised of female pilots. Due to the shortage of male pilots in the United States military, they created this secret program to train and develop female pilots. The women in the WASP units were the first women to fly and operate military aircraft. WASP training took place at Camp Davis. The first of these brave women arrived in February or 1943. The WASP has two primary military missions. One was to fly what was called "radar-deception" missions along the coast and over Topsail island. The second mission was to tow targets for the anti-aircraft units on Topsail to train on. During the conflict, two female aviators would die in the local area. It is interesting to note the WASP volunteers were considered top secret and were not recognized as veterans until 1977.


Operation "Bumblebee" a secret missile program.

Did you know that Topsail Island was home to a secret missile program? Named Operation Bumblebee the United States Navy, shortly after World War II ran a secret missile project right here on Topsail Island. Operation Bumblebee (Named due to the seemingly impossible aerodynamic problems related to rocket flight.) They designed and tested the first "ram-jet" technology. These tests and technological discoveries were instrumental in the design of today's modern missiles.

Today there are still vestiges of the Operation Bumblebee on Topsail Island. For those history buffs, or those looking for a unique vacation rental, two of the towers used for testing rockets, Tower 4 and Tower 5, have been converted to homes and are available to rent for your Topsail Island vacation.  One of the other remaining structures was converted into the Missiles and More Museum which is a must-visit destination for any Topsail Island Vacation. If you want to eat lunch on an old launch pad head over to the Jolly Roger Motel the patios was once a launch pad.


A vacation destination is born.

In 1947 A. H. Ward and a few other visionaries obtained permission from Camp Davis to begin developing the island for all to enjoy. They were the very first families to begin development of Topsail Island and after 71 years the Ward family’s dream of sharing the beauty of Topsail Island with the world is still going strong. In 1948 Operation Bumblebee officially came to an end and Topsail Island began its life as a beautiful vacation destination.

As the beauty and small-town charm of the towns on Topsail Island became known throughout the region and nationally, more and more people relocated to Topsail Island. Small mom and pop shops sprung up over the years to service the bustling tourist industry. However, unlike places like Myrtle Beach or other larger beaches along the Atlantic Coast, Topsail retained its charm and family-friendly atmosphere. To this day, you'll find few national chains, but all the convenience of big town life are just minutes away. Today visiting Topsail Island is in many ways a nostalgic experience where kids can ride their bikes, and parents can relax to the rhythms of a slower pace all on an idyllic ocean setting.


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