Elwell Ferry back in service –

The Elwell Ferry is expected to be back in service in the near future. (Ken Clark, NCDOT photo)

The iconic Elwell Ferry between Kelly and Carvers Creek will be back in service in the near future.

The ferry – which was closed due to changing river levels, hurricanes, a drought, the pandemic and the death of the contractor – has not operated for more than two years and had a reduced schedule before COVID-19. The landmark has crossed the Cape Fear River between NC 53 and NC 87 since 1904, when the Russ Brothers applied to county commissioners for permission to build and operate the ferry.

Andrew Barksdale of the Department for Transport said the two-car cable ferry had undergone a complete overhaul, unlike the limited redevelopment it underwent several years ago. In addition to the engine overhaul, the machinery was brought up to modern standards. The boat is awaiting final inspections before being relaunched, possibly as early as next week.

The ferry is popular with both commuters and tourists. When the NC 11 bridge was damaged by a tractor-trailer in 2011, which eventually led to its replacement, the ferry carried hundreds of cars, trucks, motorcycles and cyclists across the Cape Fear every day. Some of the runners are people who work and live on opposite sides of Cape Fear, while others just prefer the more laid back route.

The ferry service was closed for a period in 2009, due to damage to the landing stages. Flooding and debris damaged the boat and landings again in 2016 during Hurricane Matthew, and during Hurricane Florence in 2018, when the cable car and office were completely underwater. The ferry was closed for a year after each of the storms.

A flood in January 2020 significantly damaged the ferry and it was dry-docked for repairs which were delayed due to the pandemic and the DOT budget shortfall.

Without the ferry, motorists must take NC 11 or drive to Elizabethtown to cross the river.

Elwell Ferry was once one of three similar ferries along the Cape Fear at Bladen. It was built by Walter and John Roland Russ, who are commemorated in a marker on the Kelly side. The original boat was hauled across the river using a “pulling stick” which wrapped around the cable and was pulled manually by the operator.

Walter Russ converted the ferry to a gasoline engine just before World War II. He died in March 1942, when a buildup of gasoline fumes set off an explosion that many residents thought was the work of German saboteurs from Wilmington.

BR Melvin rebuilt the ferry, this time with a diesel engine. This ferry was eventually replaced by the boat that uses the route today. Lee Roy Russ, son and nephew of the ferry’s founders, operated Elwell Ferry for decades.

Barksdale said the North Carolina Department of Transportation, which has owned the ferry since World War II, spent $25,000 on the recent upgrade. The boat was refitted and repainted at a Wilmington marina before being hauled down the road via tractor-trailer.

The ferry has been featured in national media, including the New York Times, and several TV shows. A total of three cable ferries are still operating in the state, according to the DOT. The Elwell Ferry is believed to be the oldest continuously operating cable ferry in North Carolina.

When the ferry returns on schedule, it will operate from sunrise to sunset, seven days a week. There is no charge for the five to ten minute crossing.

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