TAR HEEL — For David B. Melvin of White Oak, his life centered around God, family and being the skipper of the Cape Fear River ferry between White Oak and Tar Heel.
On Monday, many of Melvin’s descendants — along with several elected and state officials — gathered at Tar Heel Fire Station No. 57 as the North Carolina Department of Transportation officially dedicated the new bridge across the Cape Fear River as the David B. Melvin Bridge.
“We’re so very proud to have Daddy get this honor,” said his son, Larry Melvin. “It took a special person to do that job.”
Larry recounted a number of stories about his father’s work on the ferry — how he would always go the extra mile to make sure the ferry was available to people, even after hours.
“My dad didn’t want people to have to go to Fayetteville or Elizabethtown to cross the river if they were returning from something important like a funeral or doctor’s visit,” he said. “So he would make arrangements with them to have the ferry available after hours so they could get home easily.
“That’s the kind of man he was,” Larry added.
David Melvin was well known on both sides of the river during his time skippering the ferry.
“Everyone liked Dad,” his son said. “He was a very personable, solemn man who got along with everyone.”
For several years, David Melvin ferried vehicles, people, goods, farm equipment and more across the river — all at no cost. Though the ferry was almost always in motion during its hours of operation, which usually meant sun up to sun down, it was particularly busy during tobacco season.
On Sundays, Melvin’s children would often join him on the ferry as he, at first, poled the ferry from one side to the other, and later, pulled the ferry along the steel cable.
“Daddy was a hard worker,” Larry Melvin said. “You had to be a real man to do what he did, but I think he really enjoyed it.”
But on Sept. 10, 1954, David Melvin made his greatest sacrifice.
It was on that day that he learned the ferry had somehow broken loose from its mooring and began floating to the Tar Heel side of the river. As the skipper of the ferry, Davidl Melvin knew it was his responsibility to rescue the ferry and get it secured before it drifted down the river toward Elizabethtown.
David Melvin gave it a gallant effort, but was soon pulled under the water by strong currents and drowned. It took searchers days to locate his body, but they eventually did on the Tar Heel side of the river. He was just 52.
Larry Melvin was 8 years old at the time, but remembers that day well.
“It was a very sad day for our family,” he said.
The family, which had grown up on the White Oak side of the river, soon moved to the Tar Heel side — traveling over the river on the newly constructed truss bridge that served the area until 2015.
“There are a lot of special people on both sides of the river,” Larry Melvin said. “And we quickly found out, through many of the old stories, just how much my dad was liked and respected.”
Aside from his dedicated work on the ferry, David Melvin also had two other claims to local fame — one directly and the other indirectly. As a youth, he became quite the sought-after baseball player; and his distant family tree also includes the start of the well-known Melvin’s Hamburgers & Hot Dogs in downtown Elizabethtown.
David Melvin was also the great-grandson of former North Carolina Sen. Robert Melvin.
On Monday, the extended Melvin family was presented with a replica of the sign that now greets travelers who use the new Cape Fear River span with the name David B. Melvin Bridge.
W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.