Tuesday, February 22, 2005 http://www.bladenjournal.com/  
Local News

About Us


Featured Advertisers

Web Directory
Yellow Pages
White Pages
Meet Someone
My Page
City Guide
Lottery Results
Movie Listings
Greeting Cards


Elweel Ferry celebrating 100 years of moving connecting lower Bladen

In 1905, Walter H. and John R. Russ appeared before the Bladen County Commissioners with Dr. W.H. G. Lucas. They had an idea.

At the time, residents along the Lower Cape Fear River had no easy access between east and west. The Elizabethtown bridge was more than 20 years in the future, and the Blackrock Bridge was decades away. Ferries were commonly used up and down the river, but there was none between Pender County and Elizabethtown at the time.

Exercising a right granted exclusively to county boards for 150 years, the commissioners approved the Russ' request to build and operate a ferry. They wanted to name it the Elwell Ferry, after a "pioneer family in the area. "

A century later, the Elwell Ferry is one of the last inland free ferries in the east. Hundreds of visitors each year pass between Carver's Creek and Kelly on the ferry, which runs daily except for Christmas, and only closes during foul weather. The ferry had been featured in publications and television programs about North Carolina.

The Russ brothers probably didn't think about leaving a legacy in the Kelly community. They were probably more concerned with opening up traffic between the two sides of the river, and making it easier for farmers to move crops to the railroad depot at Council.

But before they could begin hauling horse-drawn wagons and carts and eventually, motor vehicles, the men had some backbreaking work to do.

The brothers bought a right of way on either side of the river from Mrs. David Robeson, and built a wood-reinforced road to the river. They then built the ferry of wood cut and sawn in the Kelly area.

According to a privately published history about the ferry, the late Lee Roy Russ described the boat his father Walter and Uncle John built as 33 feet long, 12 feet wide, and 20 inches deep. Planks provided a ramp and a flat surface for vehicle wheels.

The boat was built upside down on the shore, according to an interview with Lee Roy Russ. Oakum-stringy cords of hemp rope-was stuffed into the spaces between the planks of the boat. Hemp was still a common crop in Bladen County in the early 1900's, and substandard hemp was commonly used to seal boats and even roofs.

Lee Roy Russ recalled how the men moved the ferry to the water with poles, the used another boat to turn it upright. As the wood swelled and the seam became tight with the sticky oakum, they finished work on the interior. Walter Russ built the new ferries for Elizabethtown and Tar Heel as well, and supplied the tools to work the simple boats.

The ferry wasn't always free.

Since opening up commerce and communications between the sides of the river was beneficial for everyone, the county commissioners paid the Russ Brothers $25 a month for the first few years. If the ferry was needed on Sunday, the fare was 25 cents until 9 p.m., and 50 cents thereafter.

Later the ferry operated strictly on a toll basis, and transportation cost 25 cents per vehicle. It was at that time that Lee Roy and his brother Cameron Russ helped their father.

The Russ family lived about a half mile from the ferry on the Kelly side, and prospective passengers would "holler" when they needed to cross.

The operator pulled the ferry upstream with a metal-shod gig pole-a long, heavy pole with a blacksmith-made hook and a point-to maneuver the ferry if it got off course. He would then use oars to maneuver the boat to the opposite shore. If he missed-a rare occurrence, according to the booklet-the ferry operator could use the gig pole to pull the boat back to the landing.

Well before the Russ brothers started their ferry, someone of extreme physical prowess was said to be "stronger than a ferryman's arm." Pulling a two-ton flatboat loaded with a ton of farm animals and another half-ton of wagon and produce, upstream against the Cape Fear River, would make this term an apt one. Nervous horses had to be blindfolded to be led aboard the flat boat.

Lee Roy Russ was nine or ten years old, according to the Elwell Ferry book, when he first transported a mule and cart across by himself. His father watched-probably nervously-from the opposite bank.

"I don't know which one of us was prouder," Russ said.

Motor vehicles cause complications

When the first cars came to the Kelly area in 1916, both drivers of the newfangled contraptions and the ferry operators had to make some adjustments.

Some early cars could roll if they were left out of gear, even when the brake was set. As even the modern gasoline-powered ferry must rock slightly to land passengers, this could and did lead to more than one car or truck sliding off the ferry and into the Cape Fear. Some were recovered and brought back into service, while others still rest somewhere on the river bottom.

One driver had a sense of humor about his experience. When Hayes Peterson accidentally drove his Chevrolet off the ferry and into the river, the Russ brothers' quick work saved his automobile. They even recovered he car, but Mr. Peterson was reluctant to try the trip again.

"Why sir," he reportedly said, "I will have to blindfold my car to get it back on the ferry, I expect."

Lee Roy and Phillip Pridgen reportedly ended up with their first car, a Ford, because the owner drove off the end of the ferry. He sold the car to the two young men for the price of two new tires he'd just had installed. The young men hooked a chain to the car, recovered it, and put it back on the road, complete with the new tires.

When Wash Braddy's brakes failed, his 470 Buick coupe ended up in the river, too, as he and his sister were headed to a social. Captain Russ helped recover the car, which was only slightly harmed. The event gave rise to a short story published in Down Our Way, a collection of tales by Jane Sanderlin Morgan.

Another time, an attempt to help the hardworking ferry operator went badly wrong.

James Moore and Joseph Pridgen were traveling across the river in Liston Pridgen's truck, loaded down with corn. As the ferry approached the far bank, Moore decided to back the truck up to put more weight toward the stern of the ferry, allowing the ramp to more easily contact the bank. He ended up driving the truck, corn crop and all, off the back of the ferry-but the force of the truck pushing against the back of the ferry did cause it to land much faster than usual.

Changing times

The ferry landings at Elwell give visitors a snapshot of many of the things that find their way into the river.

Trash, logs, boating equipment and fishing gear regularly turn up at the ramps. When the ferryman isn't moving cars and trucks across the river, he or she can often be found picking up debris along the riverbank.

J.C. McDuffie was a ferryman in the 1970's, running the modern gasoline powered ferry that still crosses the river today, when he found an old pull stick.

Pull sticks-a simple tool shaped like an oversized paddle with a notch for a cable-were used by ferry operators when the state took over the ferry system in the 1930's. The new ferries ran on a cable that stretched across the river. When cargo boats-pulpwood, fertilizer and fuel barges, along with a few relic steamboats-came by, the cable would be dropped to the bottom until the vessel went by.

The operator would simply hook the hickory pull stick over the cable and haul on its six foot length, sliding the stick along the cable and moving the ferry across the river. While less backbreaking than rowing, the use of the pull sticks of the 1930's was still hard work. McDuffie presented the antique to Lee Roy Russ.

The pignut hickory pull stick would soon became history alongside Walter Russ' handmade oars. A gasoline ferry was put to work in 1939. In just three years, the ferry that had run without loss of life since 1905 would claim its first victim-the operator, Walter Russ.

Sabotage? Or Accident?

World War II was raging, and German U-boats were hunting cargo ships off the Carolina coast. Rumors of Nazi saboteurs sneaking ashore to cause mischief were reported by newspapers-and when a handful of real German spies turned up in Carolina Beach, the whole region became worried.

On March 1, 1942, the ferry exploded.

Residents reported hearing the explosion for miles. Lee Roy was visiting friends in Reigelwood, and heard the explosion.

Woodrow Norris, the night ferryman, had gone home around 7 a.m. He rushed to the scene when the explosion awakened him, and pulled Russ from the river. He died within minutes.

All through the area, people worried the explosion was caused by a mine laid by spies to destroy the locks at Reigelwood. Others speculated the blast was an attempt to destroy a gasoline flat that had just passed through the area.

Sheriff Manley Clark called for the river to be dragged, and no evidence of a vehicle was found. Further investigation showed the explosion was likely caused by a spark that ignited gasoline fumes in the bilges of the boat. Moments before, Russ had carried Pearl Cromartie across the river.

Russ was 72, and reportedly planned to retire from the ferry that July.

Only four other fatalities have occurred on the ferry-two men who jumped overboard in 1967, and two others who were pulling an overweight vehicle onto the ferry in 1994.

Little noticed landmark

In 1968, the first steel ferry came to Elwell. Still, the only signage for this institution are the state highway department signs on N.C. 53 and N.C. 87, and large wooden signs directing travelers to the landing. There's no mention on either of the history behind this oldest surviving connector between Kelly and Carver's Creek.

Richard Smith and the Kelly Historical Society hope to change that. The group is working to erect a state historical marker on N.C. 53 at Elwell Ferry Road.

"This is a major part of our community," Smith said recently. "This is a landmark, and a lot of folks from all over the state come through to ride the ferry on the way to beach."

The Society applied for the marker earlier this year.

"We hope we can get it," Smith said. "This is something that needs to be recognized."

The Society is currently working to establish a museum in the old Centerville Baptist Church. Among the items the group expects to display are photos and artifacts relating to the century-old ferry.

"Everybody rides the ferry sometime," Smith said. "It's always been a part of our lives."

The ferry today is run by a private contractor, under the authority of the N.C. Dept. of Transportation. Crossguards warn drivers of going too far down the ramp, and chains are installed to prevent cars from rolling off the tiny boat. The operator sits in a tiny metal and glass cabin, instead of on a small stool like Lee Roy Russ used when he rowed the first ferry across under the watchful eye of his father. A lot of things have changed about the ferry since 1905.

Many things haven't. It's common to see deer swim the channel to escape hunting dogs. Fish regularly break the surface. In spring and summer, hordes of mosquitoes and yellow flies annoy the ferry operator and travelers alike.

But just like it did a century ago, the ferry still crosses the Cape Fear, linking eastern and western Bladen County.



Headline Index

Local News

Elweel Ferry celebrating 100 years of moving connecting lower Bladen

Commissioners, Hospital Board discuss hospital issues

HealthFair to celebrate women's healthy lifestyles

Bladen prisoners to work in canine program

Wet nose employment suits West Bladen student

Low-income seniors urged to take advantage of Medicare drug card credit



Home | Local News | Editorial | Sports | Classifieds
Archives | Guestbook | About Us | Subscribe