Topsail was separated from the mainland until the 1940s and reachable only by those few locals who knew how to make their way through the marsh at low tide. Its remoteness makes it easy to assume that there is little history on Topsail Island – but nothing could be farther from the truth. And its coastal watch towers are a vital reminder of the important role the region has played in history.
It was the US Army that first came to the North Carolina shore. In less than six months during World War II, the government constructed Camp Davis on the mainland at Holly Ridge – quickly raising the population. Troops would conduct artillery training under the shroud of safety provided by the barren island of Topsail. But, the Army’s presence was short lived. By the end of the war, much of the base was dismantled and the troops were transferred. But, the island’s potential was noted and it didn’t take long until the US Navy had the ideal use for the site.
On the sandy shores of what the Navy then called the “sand spit,” troops crafted and tested some 200 missiles from 1946 to 1948. In March of 1947, with the issuance of a press release, the Navy finally announced what it was doing on the island, although it failed to mention that the tests had been ongoing for months.
“Eights observation stations, located along the sand spit for tracking of units in flight will house radar and photographic equipment for recording of performance data,” the release read.
Operation Bumblebee included the development and testing of the Navy’s first supersonic guided missile and the ramjet engine, the basis for today’s jet aircraft and warheads, including the Terrier, Tartar and Talos missile systems in use aboard Navy vessels today. Ranging in length from 3 to 13 feet in length, the missiles were constructed and tested along the otherwise peaceful 26-mile stretch of beach, according to Wilmington author David A. Stallman in “Echoes of Topsail,” now in its third printing.
“The missile site was principally made up of an Assembly Building, control tower, launching platform, bombproof room and eight photographic towers,” wrote Stallman, noting that most are still intact today.
The Assembly Building, now maintained by the Historical Society of Topsail, is home to the Missiles and More Museum, which holds a plethora of artifacts and images from the missile tests. The control tower, a shorter version of the photographic towers, sits in a direct line between the Assembly Building and the launch pad. While it previously had an observation deck, the tower’s roofline has been altered through the years. The launch pad can be found as the patio for the Jolly Roger Motel and the bombproof observation room is now part of the motel’s basement.
The towers, according to Stallman, were located in a precise scientific fashion to allow for the gathering of data and photographing missile tests. They were rigidly constructed to avoid any shifting or vibration within the structure and manned with photographic equipment that could record the flights over 10-20 miles at speeds of up to 1,500 mph. The towers were centered on “concrete slabs supported on creosoted piles driven to a minimum depth of 20 feet and 15 tons of bearing.”
Seven of the original eight structures remain, although a few have been merged into beachfront homes and are hard to recognize. While three of the residences are private, Tower 5 is a short-term rental offered through Ward Realty, allowing guests the opportunity to spend the night in a piece of history.
Tower 8, which was located at the northern edge of the island, was destroyed in 1989 after becoming an eyesore and a gathering spot for vandals and rebel rousers. At least three deaths occurred on the site from falls from the top floor and the owner opted to demolish the structure when he realized it was impossible to keep trespassers off the property.
Now protected by the Historical Society of Topsail, the Missiles and More Museum is on the National Register of Historic Places, as is Tower 2, which is noted as being the most original of the remaining icons.
To learn more of the story, the museum is open from 2-4pm, Monday through Saturday, May through September, with reduced off-season hours. Admission is free. For additional details, call 910-328-8663 or visit topsailmissilesmuseum.org. Of course, grabbing a map and taking a jaunt around the island to find the towers can provide a unique and historic adventure for visitors of any age.