Topsail Tower

Rarely do the towers go unnoticed by visitors – standing along the coastline like sentinels of an era long forgotten. Despite the battle scars from the elements endured, the towers remain strong and sturdy. They’re conversation starter for history buffs and puzzling clues to first time visitors. Even among longtime residents, stories abound about the purpose of the towers swirl, from World War II submarine spotting posts to whale watching outposts. No, they weren’t built by the electric company, but they were, for many years, shrouded in mystery, opening the door for the imagination to run amuck. Today, however, the full story is out in the open - all it takes is a visit to the Missiles & More Museum in Topsail.

The island was completely separated from the mainland until the 1940s, reachable only by those few locals who knew how to hop, skip and jump their way across the marsh during low tide. A barren, 26-mile stretch of sand and maritime forest – 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 site has played.

It was the US Army that first came to this stretch of coastline. In less than six months during World War II, the government constructed Camp Davis on the mainland at Holly Ridge, bringing the rural community with a population of less than 50 to a max of about 70,000 in a few short years. Troops could conduct artillery training under the shroud of safety provided by the island. 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. The island’s potential was noted by the government, however, 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 referred to as 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.

“Eight 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. Ranging in length from 3 to 13 feet, 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 in the Town of Topsail.

The Assembly Building, now maintained by the Historical Society of Topsail, is home to the Missiles and More Museum and 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 now serves 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. That doesn’t mean visitors don’t have the opportunity to visit them – Towers 4 and 5 are short-term rentals 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 trouble makers. 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. Tower 2, which once stood alone along the sound side of the island, now dons a coat of fresh blue paint and has become a centerpiece in a new development community.

To learn more of the story, the museum is open from 2-5pm, Monday through Saturday, May through September, with reduced off-season hours. Admission is free. For additional details, call 910-328-8663 or visit missilesandmoremuseum.org. Of course, grabbing a map and taking a jaunt around the island trying to find these towers can provide a unique and historic adventure for visitors of any age.

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