If you’ve ever driven through Topsail you might have noticed the white towers sprinkled across the island. Some look gutted and in disrepair, and others may have not caught your eye because they’ve been refurbished into homes. They’re located on both the ocean and sound side of the island.
So what are they? Firefighter training facilities? Remnants of Cold War paranoia? A curious art exhibition? Not quite.
Those simple, concrete frames are telemetry towers. First erected in the late 1940’s for Operation Bumblebee, these structures were used to track the missiles being developed for anti-aircraft defense. Using telemetry equipment set up in the towers, researchers were able to track how quickly a missile made it from one end of the (then uninhabited) island and establish a base rate for tests afterwards.
Of the eight towers that originally stood, seven still remain. After being taken out of operation they have been retrofitted for different uses. While some have been converted into homes, some were the home to businesses in the 1950’s after Operation Bumblebee relocated to China Lake. One on North Topsail Beach was demolished in 1989 at the behest of the owner after several people died in falls while trespassing on the property.
The towers have overseen the birth of the Topsail Community. Through hurricanes and other severe weather, they stood as stalwart beacons of Topsail’s humble beginnings and military past.
Along with the telemetry towers, other structures remain today that were left from Operation Bumblebee. The Assembly Building, where the Missiles & More Museum as well as the Historical Society of Topsail Island are based, was where the Navy put together the missiles designed to take out incoming ballistics. If you’re familiar with the Jolly Roger Inn you might be surprised to learn that their patio used to be a launch platform. Missiles were wheeled out of the Assembly Building and fired from that spot. Beneath the platform is a reinforced bunker where missile launches could be safely observed. Even the control tower has taken on new life as a family beach house on the southwest corner of Anderson Blvd.
Although the towers don’t look like much today, they mark the beginning of Topsail Island as a residential and tourist destination. The infrastructure created by the Navy for Operation Bumblebee was literally the groundwork for the township we know and love today.
Next time you’re giving your friends the tour of the town, make sure to point out the towers (after all, you’re practically an expert now). If they don’t inspire wonder in your guests over the advancement of progress, they’ll at least clear up any wondering the uninitiated might have over those strange structures that span Topsail.