A Ride Across the River
The Elwell Cable Ferry is back in actionBy Sarah Thompson | Photos by Ashley Davis
The two-minute ride across the Cape Fear River on the Elwell Cable Ferry will send any partaker back in time. While its purpose is practical, the nostalgic feeling it brings people is what has made it into a local celebrity in Bladen County, deeply missed during a two-year hiatus.
While cable ferries may be unknown to outsiders, the Elwell Ferry, served by Four County EMC, is one of three historic inland ferries in the state that hold a special place in eastern North Carolinians’ hearts.
“This is the first time we’ve gone for an extended period of time without it running,” says Ken Clark, a district engineer with the NC Department of Transportation (NCDOT). “And there’s a whole series of events that lead to that.”
In 2018, Hurricane Florence smashed through the coastal communities of North Carolina. At the Elwell Ferry, the water levels became too high, so it was not possible to send the vessel across. The hits kept coming: in 2020, the contractor of the ferry passed away suddenly, and when the pandemic hit, NCDOT could not financially support running the ferry because of an absence of people requiring transportation.
When NCDOT was finally able to run the ferry again, it needed to find a new contractor — insurance for the ferry and that new contractor required updated inspections and repairs. The long journey to get the vessel back in the water might beg the question: Why not build a bridge?
“It really comes down to cost,” Ken says. “It’s definitely more convenient with a bridge, but the cost of the bridge to go across there, because of the size of the river, you’re probably talking about a minimum of $15 million.”
Originally, cable ferries were not pulled by a hydraulic motor. They were pulled by horses or people across the water with a pulling stick that wrapped around the cable. In the 1920s, NCDOT started replacing the ferries with bridges. Now, there are only three inland cable ferries: the Elwell; the San Souci Ferry in Bertie County; and Parker’s Ferry in Hertford County.
The Elwell Ferry was established by brothers John Roland and Walter Russ in 1904. When trying to modernize the ferry from a pull-stick system to gasoline power, Walter Russ was killed by a gas explosion. His son, Lee Roy Russ, took over ferry operations.
NCDOT took ownership of the Elwell ferry during the 1930s, adding it to the highway division. The department contracts the ferry to other entities to lead its operation and in-person work. Without the ferry, the detour is 23 minutes compared with the two-minute travel time across the water. While people waited anxiously for the ferry, Chuck Connor, project manager at the Wilmington Marine Center, worked tirelessly throughout the summer with his team to bring the vessel to its former glory.
“I rode the ferry one time when I was little with my dad many years ago,” Chuck says. “So when the DOT called, I was excited about going to look at it, and taking on the job and getting her back in service.”
Finally, last October the ferry returned to service, moving approximately 80 vehicles a day across the river.
“It’s a love-hate relationship from the DOT perspective because [inland ferries] cause a lot of aggravation in terms of scheduling, water fluctuations and different things that occur,” Ken says, “but the love side of it is the nostalgia. When you go down there it’s a very serene, peaceful setting. Even if it only lasts two minutes, people seem to really enjoy that moment of going back in time.”
About the AuthorSarah Thompson was a Carolina Country editorial intern in 2022. She is currently pursuing a journalism degree from UNC Chapel Hill.