10 Things You May Not Know About Topsail Island, North Carolina


10 Things You May Not Know About Topsail Island, North Carolina | Century 21 Action

*UPDATED OCTOBER 2018

Whether you live or vacation on Topsail Island, there are plenty of interesting things to learn about this barrier island off of the beautiful coast of North Carolina. Rich in maritime history, culture, legend and military significance, there's always something new and fascinating to learn.

Here's a little Topsail Island trivia for you. How much do you know? Read on to find out more! And by all means, share the knowledge with your family and friends. 


1. Legend has it that Topsail Island got its name from the infamous pirates that used to lie-in-wait between the island and the mainland.

The story goes that merchant ships eventually caught on and began to look for the top sails of ships lurking behind the island (hence the name Topsail Island), assuming they belonged to a pirate ship. Whether that helped the merchantmen avoid pillage and plunder, we'll never know. 

But history tells us that the name actually came from New Topsail Inlet. This inlet's name can be found on early navigational charts with the other Topsail Inlet located in Beaufort, NC. Soon after J.G. Anderson developed the southernmost end of the island and named it New Topsail Beach, the island has been called Topsail ever since. 

By the way, if you're visiting Topsail Island, the local pronunciation is "Topsul" not "Top-Sail"... just so you know.

2. The first written records of Topsail Island date back to the 1500s.

Penned by early explorers who described the abundant seafood beds, though the island itself dates back to prehistoric times, the first recorded writings of the island date back to the 16th century. After that there isn't much written history, but again legend speaks of Blackbeard and Stede Bonnet hiding their buried treasure in this area of North Carolina's coastline. You may want to consider bringing your metal detector on your next visit.

3. Prior to the 1940s, Topsail Island was only accessible by boat.

Prior to World War II, Topsail Island was only accessible by boat. Area residents frequently made this short trip and picnicked on the sandy shores of the Atlantic Ocean. Local farmers are said to have driven their livestock across the waterways at low tide to graze on wild beach grass. Treasure hunters searched for Blackbeard’s infamous buried treasure throughout the maritime forests which covered the island. During the early 20th century only a few structures, probably less than a dozen, were built along the sound and were used as shelter for fishing trips and summer vacations.

4. Topsail Island was devastated by two hurricanes that hit within two months of each other in 1996. 

As we mentioned earlier, barrier islands often face the brunt of the storms that come along the coast, making them particularly vulnerable to the elements. Hurricanes Bertha and Fran did a double whammy on Topsail Island in 1996. Bertha rolled in during July and then Fran quickly followed in September. The estimated losses of the combined storms was over $6 billion. And through it all, resilient Topsail Island recovered—coming back stronger than ever.

Hurricane Florence made its presence known on our island in 2018, but again, the strength, beauty and community of the island prevailed over the elements.

5. Topsail Island is a barrier island, which is not only beautiful but also beneficial.

Of course an island is a thing of beauty in and of itself, but did you know that barrier islands perform some essential functions? They do. Topsail is one of many barrier islands off of the east coast of the United States. Barrier islands function as a form of protection for the mainland from storms. Without them, the mainland would be exposed to the full force of hurricanes including increased damage, erosion and storm surge.

Barrier islands also offer estuaries of marine life that are essential to the ecosystem-at-large. Teeming with unique aquatic life, these estuaries provide a calm and nutrient-rich environment for all its sea life including marine animals, birds, fish and more.

Finally, barrier islands are beneficial to sea turtles, particularly loggerheads (which are a threatened species) by providing crucial nesting areas. Sea turtles come ashore each spring to nest and bury their eggs in the sand. In the fall, the hatchlings emerge and begin their journey back to the sea.

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operation bumblebee topsail island nc | Century 21 Action
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6. During the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, Topsail Island became a large producer of a much-coveted item: salt.

Yep, we said salt. Today we don't give it a second thought because it's so common and easy to find. During those times (when refrigeration didn't exist), salt was a hot commodity for its preservation purposes, health benefits and trading value. Most of the salt at that time was imported from Europe until the realization that sea water could be boiled or evaporated for its salt content. Voila! A new, thriving industry was born.

7. Topsail Island was important in World War II for many reasons, one of which was the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP).

History in the making, the training and housing of female pilots at Camp Davis makes for some interesting reading. Women Airforce Service Pilots, most commonly referred to as WASP was a group that began in response to World War II in the 1940’s. These women were a vital part of the war effort having been trained to fly American military aircraft. Eleanor Roosevelt was quoted in 1942 saying: “This is not a time when women should be patient. We are in a war and we need to fight it with all our ability and every weapon possible.  Women pilots, in this particular case, are a weapon waiting to be used.” This weapon would end with 38 women losing their lives for their country. How did this group start and more importantly, who were they and what did they do? Stop by the museum for the answers to these and many other questions! 

8. After World War II, the Navy began a top-secret project on Topsail Island named Operation Bumblebee.

Operation Bumblebee was the United States Navy's secret guided missile testing program on Topsail Island from 1946-1948. We would tell you more about it, but then we'd have to kill you. Just kidding!

Topsail Island was a proving ground for early missile testing and the controlled ramjet engine (which is the principle design concept for today's supersonic flight). You can read more about Operation Bumblebee here.

9. Topsail Island is home to one of North Carolina's last and longest swing bridges, which is now being replaced.

The 26-mile island, split between two counties that hosts three municipalities, now has two bridges. North Carolina Department of Transportation’s new $53 million bridge will replace Surf City’s 1950s-era swing bridge and improve traffic flow on and off the island. The contractor expects to have cars on the new bridge by Christmas 2018. You can read more about the updates on the Surf City replacement bridge from NCDOT here.

10. Topsail Island Named "Best" in the USA by TripAdvisor.

The word is out and Topsail Island is not much of a secret anymore. You'll see it making the "best of" lists in the news and word of mouth has been spreading like wildfire. Topsail Island, NC has recently been named Best Little Beach Town by TripAdvisor. It has also made the list of Top 30 rising vacation rental destinations by TripAdvisor noting that "Due to its southern-facing geography, Topsail Island receives amazing sunrises and sunsets, often visible right from your kitchen window or outdoor patio." Yes, they are amazing!


Topsail is a wonderful place to live, to retire, to relocate and to visit and vacation. We hope that you love it as much as we do. Cheers to you, Topsail Island!


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10 Things You May Not Know About Topsail Island, North Carolina | Century 21 Action Topsail Real Estate


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