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Topsail Island History

Of all the beaches on the North Carolina coast, the history of Topsail Island is undoubtedly the most interesting. Whether you're a local or someone hoping to visit soon, read on for some amazing facts about Topsail Island that you never knew.

We'll talk about everything from Native Americans and Pirates to the US Army's Operation Bumblebee - and how all three influence Topsail to this day.

At this point I'm sure I've piqued your curiosity, so let's get started.

What's in a name?

To begin with, the spelling "Topsail" is a bit problematic. You see, it includes the word "sail" so people often assume that it's pronounced like the sail of a ship. In reality, J.G. Anderson named the island after an inlet called the New Topsail Inlet and it is pronounced "top sill" (like a window-"sill"). I'll talk about the New Topsail Inlet in more detail later on.

I have no doubt you've heard of the infamous pirate Blackbeard, and you might have even know that he was born in North Carolina. But did you know that Topsail Island was one of his favorite spots to hide out? It's true, and some have even gone as far as to suggest that he hid his treasure here!

But Blackbeard wasn't the only pirate to frequent the island, and it's this fact that led to a common myth about Topsail's name. This myth suggests that the island was named after the top sail of pirate ships, which was the only thing visible from the sea when the pirates were hiding behind the island.

The truth, as I mentioned before, is that the name comes from the New Topsail Inlet. We know this because you can find the inlet on the earliest navigational charts. J.G. Anderson would have had access to these charts when he developed the southernmost end of the island and named it "New Topsail Beach". So, because the inlet had its name long before the island did, we can say with great certainty that it's where the name "Topsail" came from.

Pre WWII

For the majority of its history, the only way to reach Topsail Island was by boat. Even so, the island was a hub of activity. The Tuscarora Indians are the first known visitors to the island, which they used as hunting grounds. You can still find their arrowheads to this day, even though many mistake them for sharks teeth on first glance.

After the Tuscaroras used it for hunting, Topsail became a popular hiding spot for pirates, as I mentioned before. Next, farmers used the island as grazing land for livestock. They would ferry their animals back and forth to the island on a daily basis. Similarly, the island was a popular picnic spot for tourists, who would take day trips to the island during this time.

At the end of the day, Topsail Island was a reasonably large, undeveloped area with thick coastal forests and plains perfect for hiding, hunting, grazing and simply relaxing. That's why it's no surprise that the island was so popular, even long before there was a bridge to it.

During the War

But the history of Topsail Island as we know it today truly begins with the start of WWII. That's when the U.S. Army built a training facility in nearby Holly Ridge, NC and then bought Topsail Island. They're responsible for building the first ever bridge to the island, which was a floating bridge located in the exact same location as the one we use today.

With the bridge taken care of, the Army then built training facilities in the area now known as Surf City. Much like the pirates from centuries before, the Army valued the relative seclusion of the island, and that's why it was the perfect place for a training facility.

Aftermath // Operation Bumblebee

Once the war was over, Topsail Island shifted hands from the Army to the U.S. Navy. Once again, it was the isolation of the island that influenced their decision.

The Navy used Topsail as the location for a guided missile development program called Operation Bumblebee, and you can still see it's remnants to this day. Though the program ended in 1948, many of the missile tracking towers (shown in the picture below) are still intact, and the original missile launching pad is now the patio of the well-known Jolly Roger's Motel.

Topsail Island today

Commercial development on Topsail Island officially began in 1948 with the end of Operation Bumblebee, and it's amazing how far it has come in the years since. Modern day Topsail is a vacationer's dream for many reasons. These include the family friendly atmosphere, the ban on all high-rise development, and the focus on island conservation - which is a top priority.

It's because of these factors that there are around 1200 homes on the island, and 500 year-round residents. The peak season brings Topsail's population up to 7000, which helps support the island economy and conservation efforts. Locals understand how important Topsail is for both North Carolina and US history, and they want to make sure it's there for centuries to come.

So if you've been considering a vacation to Topsail Island, don't wait. Bring the whole family, and come experience the beauty and tranquility that's lured people to Topsail for centuries.

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