Elwell Ferry Back in Service

Elwell Ferry
Elwell Ferry (DOT photo)

After two years of hurricanes, COVID-19, floods and the need for a new contractor, the Elwell Ferry began running again today (Monday) just past 7 a.m.

The ferry crosses the Cape Fear River between Carvers and Kelly. Andrew Barksdale of the N.C. Department of Transportation said the return of service was delayed slightly due to high waters, but the square boat began its five-minute journey back and forth for the first time since 2020.

ICRO Enterprises Inc. of Greenville will operate the cable ferry at a cost of $86,200 for one year, Barksdale said. The contract can be mutually extended. Elwell Ferry carries about 75 vehicles a day, usually one crossing at a time. It’s one of three remaining inland cable ferries operated by the NCDOT. The other two are the San Souci Ferry in Bertie County and the Parker’s Ferry in Hertford County.

The free ferry operates seven days a week, and there is no need for an appointment. The ferry is open from sunrise to sunset all year except for Christmas.  Demand is heavier in the summertime.

Elwell Ferry was first launched in 1905, when the Russ Brothers obtained a contract from Bladen County to provide ferry service across the Cape Fear. The cable ferry was originally pulled by hand. A gasoline engine replaced the manual power in the 1920s, but that improvement led to an accidental explosion in 1942 that killed one of the founding operators. The state took over the ferry in the 1950s. The current boat was launched in the 1960s, and has undergone numerous refits through the years.

One of the busiest times in recent years came when a logging truck severely damaged the Blackrock Bridge, several miles downstream, leading to the closure of N.C. 11 for several days. While commercial traffic had to go to Wilmington or Elizabethtown, dozens of passenger vehicles lined the roads on both the N.C. 53 and N.C. 87 sides of the ferry waiting their turn. Two vehicles at a time can be transported. One of the ferry operators reported transporting more than 300 vehicles in a single day after the bridge was closed.

The ferry was beached for months after Hurricane Matthew. in 2016, then it sustained damage when the recordbreaking floods swept over  Kelly and the lower Cape Fear during Hurricane Florence. The ferry was barely back in service when COVID-19 hit. After the previous contract ended in 2020, Barksdale said, NCDOT did not immediately replace it due to budget constraints brought on by the pandemic. The state took the time to string a new steel cable over the river and perform maintenance on the landings.

The ferry was drydocked at Wilmington marina this year, so that it could be fully inspected and overhauled with new components, sandblasting and repainting at a cost of $25,000.

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Jefferson Weaver is the Managing Editor of Columbus County News and he can be reached at (910) 914-6056, (910) 632-4965, or by email at [email protected].