The Secrets of the Missile Towers on Topsail Island
When you make the drive from Surf City into Topsail Beach, you can't miss the mysterious structures that have fueled imaginations, conversations and questions throughout the years. So what secrets do these iconic structures hold? Let's find out. The significance of these historic towers are a part of Topsail (and American) history that everyone should know.
Topsail was separated from the mainland until the 1940s and 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 played in military history.
Army/Navy Training and Testing
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, 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. 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.
Military Missiles... and More
The remote island made it a perfect setting for the Navy to test missiles, as part of Operation Bumblebee. The main purpose of these towers was to test the ramjet engine. Operation Bumblebee included the development and testing of the Navy's first supersonic guided missile and the ramjet engine, which many believe was the start for today's jet aircraft and warheads.
Aviation Technology and Advancement
Operation Bumblebee and its testing was the basis for current day 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, 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.
"This is not just history for Topsail Island, it's history right here for the world and it's why the U.S. led aviation technology for so many years." states Evelyn Bradshaw of the Topsail Missiles and More Museum.
Topsail Towers Become Part of Topsail Rentals & Homes
Today, seven of the eight towers remain. Many are vacant and dilapidated but some have been bought by private investors and made into prefabricated homes ."I think it's amazing that these homes have kept the integrity of the concrete towers," Bradshaw said. "It's history that has been made new again."
Tower 8, which was located at the northern edge of Topsail 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.
The Assembly Building and The Missiles & More Museum in Topsail, NC
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 can be found as the patio for the Jolly Roger Motel and the bombproof observation room is now part of the motel’s basement.
To learn more and to get an up-close look at the towers during your next Topsail vacation, visit the Missiles and More Museum at 720 Channel Blvd., Topsail Beach, NC, 28445. Learn more here.
Interested in Learning More About the Topsail Towers? Check Out This Video!
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So much Topsail history, so little time to explore it all!