The iconic Elwell Ferry between Kelly and Carvers Creek will be back in service in the near future.
The ferry – which was shut down due to changing river levels, hurricanes, a drought, the pandemic and the death of the contractor – hasn’t run for more than two years, and was on a reduced schedule before COVID-19. The landmark has crossed the Cape Fear River between N.C. 53 and N.C. 87 since 1904, when the Russ Brothers petitioned the county commissioners for permission to build and operate the ferry.
Andrew Barksdale of the Department of Transportation said the two-car cable ferry has undergone a complete makeover, unlike the limited refit it went through several years back. In addition to the overhaul of the engine, the machinery has been upgraded to modern standards. The boat is awaiting final inspections before being relaunched, possibly as early as next week.
The ferry is popular both with commuters and tourists. When the N.C. 11 bridge was damaged by a tractor trailer in 2011, eventually leading to its replacement, the ferry carried hundreds of cars, trucks, motorcycles and bicyclists every day across the Cape Fear. Some of the riders are people who work and live on opposite sides of the Cape Fear, while others just prefer the more laid-back path across.
The ferry service ferry was closed for a period in 2009, due to damage to the landings. Flooding and debris again damaged the boat and the landings in 2016 during Hurricane Matthew, and during Hurricane Florence in 2018, when the cablehouse and office were completely underwater. The ferry was shut down for a year after each of the storms.
A flood in January 2020 significantly damaged the ferry, and it was drydocked for repairs that were delayed due to the pandemic and the DOT budget shortfall.
Without the ferry, motorists have to take N.C. 11 or drive to Elizabethtown to cross the river.
Elwell Ferry was once one of three similar ferries along the Cape Fear in Bladen. It was built by Walter and John Roland Russ, who are memorialized in a marker at the Kelly side. The original boat was hauled across the river using a “pull stick” that wrapped around the cable, and pulled manually by the operator.
Walter Russ converted the ferry to gasoline power just before World War II. He died in March 1942, when a buildup of gasoline fumes sparked an explosion that many residents thought was the work of German saboteurs coming up from Wilmington.
B.R. Melvin rebuilt the ferry, this time with a diesel engine. That ferry was eventually replaced by the boat that runs the route today. Lee Roy Russ, the son and nephew of the ferry’s founders, operated Elwell Ferry for decades.
Barksdale said the N.C. Department of Transportation, which has owned the ferry since around World War II, spent $25,000 on the recent upgrade. The boat was refitted and repainted at a Wilmington marina before being hauled up the road via tractor trailer.
The ferry has been featured in national media, including the New York Times, and multiple television broadcasts. A total of three cable ferries still run in the state, according to DOT. Elwell Ferry is thought to be the oldest continually running cable ferry in North Carolina.
When the ferry is back on schedule, it will run from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. There is no charge for the five to ten minute crossing.