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Page history last edited by Shamella Cromartie 14 years, 3 months ago

Bladen County Ferries

by Rev. Nash A. Odom


From the earliest beginning of Bladen County there have been ferries to transport people across the rivers.  But like the covered bridge, the river ferry has all but disappeared from the American scene.  There is only one ferry now operating in Bladen County and that is Elwell’s Ferry near Kelly.  The story of these ferries could make an interesting chapter in the history of our county.


Perhaps the oldest ferry in the county was Isaac Jones’ Ferry at Elizabethtown.  This ferry was in operation and met all the qualifications for a public ferry when the town was founded in 1773.  Isaac Jones left his ferry to his son, Musgrove Jones in his will that was dated September 10, 1783.  In his will he mentions “My ferry in Elizabethtown.”  This ferry was replaced by the McGirt Bridge in the middle 1920’s.  All that remains of the Elizabethtown ferry today is the road that leads to the landing beside the new bridge.


There was a ferry located below Elizabethtown that was known as “Waddell’s Ferry” and this ferry got its name from the Hugh Waddell family that owned the “Belefonte Plantation” near the ferry.  This ferry was located about two miles below Elizabethtown and just below Lock No. 2.  The only remains of this ferry is the old store that stood on the road leading to the river on the East side.  The remains of an old turpentine still can be found close to this old store on the bluff of the river.


There was also a ferry at “Indian Wells” that was located near the county line about midway between Elizabethtown and Wilmington.


An article in the FAYETTEVILLE OBSERVER, dated January 28, 1973, provides us with the story of “Elwell Ferry.”  This is the only ferry in Bladen County in operation today and is a pleasant tie to yesteryear.


Some 20 miles below Elizabethtown near the once-elegant Revolutionary War-era mansion, Oakland, once the home of General Thomas Brown, one can today take a ride into the past on a ferry which has operated continuously at the same spot on the historic Caope Fear River since 1906.  It is the only remaining inland ferry in North Carolina.


There have been days when the ferry was unable to operate, like when it was down for repairs, or when the river was deemed too high for a safe crossing.


But by and large, it has operated daily since John R. Russ and Dr. W.H.G. Lucas went before the Bladen County Board of Commissioners armed with a citizens petition and argued successfully for the rights to operate a ferry at the site.


It was christened “Elwell Ferry” in honor of a pioneer family of that name that had settled in that area.


John Russ and his brother, Walter, purchased the right-of-way on either side of the river from Mr. David Robeson.  They built a road through the muddy lowlands and floored it with oak lumber.


The ferry the Russ brothers built was 33 feet long and 12 feet wide and could carry two mules and wagons loaded.  It was pulled up one side of the river with a gig (a long pole with a sharp metal point and hook).  Oars were then used, with the help of the river current, to pull it across the river.


The method of operation was employed until the ferry was motorized in 1937.


Walter Russ operated the first ferry and was paid about $25 for six days operation per week.  If he operated on Sunday, he charged 25 cents per vehicle until 9 p.m. and, after nine, the fee went to 50 cents.  The ferry was operated on a toll basis until the state assumed its operation in 1931.


The majority of persons using the ferry in the early days were farmers taking their cotton to gin at Council.  Doctors also used it to attend patients on the east side of the river.


Walter Russ operated the ferry until his death on March 1, 1942, when gas fumes collected and it exploded.  It was rebuilt a short while later and operated by B.R. Melvin until his death.


After Melvin’s death, the ferry was operated by Arthur Horrell for a short period, and then by W.C. Jones until his retirement in 1962.


Subsequent operators included W. Clyde Brown, H.B. Bigford, L.R. Russ, W.C. Jones, and Thurman Brown.


The ferry’s present operators are J.C. McDuffie and P.D. Hall.  The two work staggered shifts, three days one week and four days the next.


McDuffie is a retired Army sergeant who spent 11 years at Ft. Bragg.  Despite its isolation, McDuffie relishes the “easy going” connected with being a ferry operator.  There is a small cabin about 25 yards from the ferry landing that is used by the men to stay out of the weather.


About 45 to 50 cars a day are ferried across the 120 yard wide, 12 feet deep channel.  A round trip takes five minutes.  During the summer months, the traffic is greater, with between 65 to 70 vehicles using the ferry.  It operates from sunrise to sunset part of the year and from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. the rest of the time.


Elwell Ferry is truly a tie to yesterday.


from The Bladen Journal, 7/19/1973






1920's School Bus on Ferry 




Elwell Ferry


Back to Bladen


Volume 4                                  3 April 2004                            Number 1                                



Elwell Ferry: 1905-1998


At the turn of the century, most Eastern North Carolinians had little access to the lower part of the state because there were no bridges on the Cape Fear River. Small wooden ferries were the only means of transportating passengers or cargo across the river. Many of these primitive vessels dotted the 110 nautical miles or 90 roadway miles along the Cape Fear River.

          Some 18 miles east of Elizabethtown, on a short length or road between the farm communities of Kelly, on the north side, and Carver’s Creek, on the south side, lies the Elwell Ferry. It is one of the last inland river ferries in North Carolina. Located between State Highways 53 and 87 in Southeast Bladen County, it crosses the Cape Fear River about six miles upstream from the first lock.

          The Elwell landing is miles from even the tiniest community and the ferry is the only sign of civilization to be seen. The river is flanked on either side by cypress trees hung with Spanish moss, and dense hardwood forests cover the banks as far as the eye can see. When there is neither ferry nor river traffic, the Cape Fear is a sheet of brackish colored glass and the stillness is broken only by the deer that often swim the river near the landing.

          At least local residents have an alternate route now. The river bridge on Hwy 701 in Elizabethtown was built in the 1920s and the Blackrock bridge near Riegelwood more recently. But long-time residents appreciate the ferry most. They have come to love it like an old friend. Before the first ferry was built, residents had to travel to Wilmington to cross the Cape Fear.

          The history of the ferry at the Elwell landing goes back to 1905 when two brothers, Walter Hayes and John R. Russ, along with Dr. W.H. G. Lucas, went before the Bladen County Board of Commissioners armed with a citizens’ petition. They argued successfully for the right to operate a ferry at the site. It was christened “Elwell Ferry” in honor of a pioneer family that had settled in that area. The brothers purchased the right of way on either side of the river from Mrs. David Robeson. They then built a short road leading down to the river which had to be partially floored with oak lumber because the river lowland was so muddy and unstable. They also built the first “flat” or ferry.


The “pull Stick” Days

          In the thirties the state began to assume control of the rapidly growing highways system and, with it the Elwell Ferry. The state now took over the job of building flats, and Elwell’s first cable ferry came into being. Unlike the free-floating, hand rowed flats of mule and wagon days; the new ferry was tethered to a heavy wire cable strung across the river. The flat was now propelled across the river by means of a “pull stick.” This way usually a six or seven foot pole, probably made of pignut hickory, with a notch in the end. Using the pull stick to grasp the cable, Walter Russ pulled the ferry along it by hand. It was still hard work, but now the cable eliminated the extra effort he had to exert to keep from being swept down stream. While J.C. McDuffie was working as ferryman in the early 1970s, he found an old pull stick. Realizing it had been made and used by Walter Russ. McDuffie presented it to Lee Roy Russ, who still has it.

          To allow for the passage of river barge traffic, the cable was attached to a hand winch on the north bank. Signs well above and below the ferry crossings warned river vessels to sound blast as they approached. The ferryman could then release the winch and lower the cable to the river bottom while the vessel passed over, raising it again when the traffic had passed. At night when the ferry was closed the cable was left on the river bottom.


Progress & Tragedy

          Around 1939 the state modernized the ferry. The new flat was still made of wood and still tethered to the cable, but now the pull stick was replaced with a Ford gasoline engine powering side wheel to drive the flat along. Russ warned that there was inadequate ventilation in the hull for the engine.

          This prognostication proved to be true. On March 1, 1942, a spark ignited gasoline fumes in the bilge and the ferry exploded, killing Walter Russ who has operated the ferry without a fatality for thirty-five years. Lee Roy Russ remembers the date all too well. They were visiting Vera Heath Russ’ family at Acme (now Riegelwood) that Sunday morning. This is Lee Roy’s account:

          “I was putting on my slippers-we had slept late that morning-when I heard the explosion. Like a lot of people, I though it was sabotage, that somebody was trying to blow up the locks on the river.”

          The sabotage thought was a natural, for it had been less than five months since the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and brought the United States into World War II.


THE BLADEN JOURNAL of March 5, 1942, reported on the accident:

          A terrific explosion destroyed the state-owned gasoline ferry at Elwell’ ferry Sunday morning about 9 O’clock, and killed, almost instantly, Walter H. Russ, highly respected ferryman, who had operated the ferry since 1906. The blast was so great that is was heard for 10 miles. And many windows in the vicinity were broken.

          Sheriff H. Manley Clark, who was called immediately to investigate the cause of the explosion, called in representatives of the State and Federal bureau of investigation and the State Highway Patrol and Sunday night they gave out a statement that the explosion was in all probability caused by an accumulation of gas on the ferry which became ignited by a spark from the engine.

          Mr. Russ went on duty at 7a.m. and Woodrow Norris, night ferryman, had gone to his home at the top of the river hill and gone to bed. As soon as he heard the explosion, he rushed back to the river and said he found Mr. Russ hanging in the cable, a part of his body being in the water and the ferry under the water. As soon as he saw Mr. Russ arms and legs were broken, he went into the water and pulled him ashore. Mr. Russ lived only a few minutes after the explosion.

Sheriff H.M. Clark states that he and assisting officers found no evidence of sabotage, as rumors flew thick and fast in the county. The river was dragged and neither automobile nor person was found.

          Rumors were centered on the fact that U.S. Locks are located about 20 miles from Elwell ferry and it was thought that a mine might have been laid, intended to blow up the locks—also mention was made of the fact that a gasoline barge passed about one hour after the explosion and a mine could have been intended to destroy the barge. Pieces of the flat weighing as much as 1,500 pounds were hurled 150 yards. The flat was completely demolished, the top being blown off and the sides blown out.

          The explosion is thought to have taken place as Mr. Russ was returning after ferrying Pearl Cromartie, or some cargo across the river.

          Walter Russ was 72 years old and had planned to retire in July. His final words were “It’s come home.” He was referring, it is thought, to the war and his belief that the enemy had blown up the ferry. The ferry was rebuilt and began operation again on March 28, 1942.

          Sadly, Walter Russ was only the first tragedy on the Elwell ferry. On May 18, 1994, two more lives, that of David Clemmons, 24, and John Lanier, 30 were claimed when their truck was pushed off the ferry by the trailer they were towing. The ferry could carry about 8000 pounds. The truck and trailer weighed that much.

          Subsequent to the 1967 drownings, the U.S. Coast Guard has strictly enforced safety regulations. The passenger limit was set at 17- the number of life rings available. Fishing and diving are prohibited as the ferry site. Signs on the banks warn boaters and water skiers of the cable crossing.

          Thankfully, there have been no other fatalities at the ferry. However, many less serious incidents have occurred. The locals know about the cable. Most professional boatmen do, too, but pleasure boaters from other areas do not. Consequently, accidents have occurred.


          From ELWELL FERRY, 1905-1998, dedicated to Walter H. Russ, 1870-1942


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