The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

1911 Tragedy

By Imogene Turman © 1987

Issue: January, 1987

Peter Fenny.Peter Fenny.May 10, 1911 - A spring morning found a group of men watching and helping John Thomas as he went down a well. He had dynamited the day before, so this day, he went down to clean away the rock and see if the dynamite had broke through the rock. The well was 65 feet deep and he had struck solid rock.

Mr. Thomas called to be pulled up. He was used to digging wells. Not being afraid, he had failed to tie a safety belt on himself. As he was pulled to the top, he reached for the side. His hand slipped and he fell head first down the well.

Shock ran through the onlookers. There was no way the man could still be alive from such a fall, but they had to get him out.

They looked for a man to go down for the body, and agreed young Peter Fenny could do the job. He was young and strong and when called on, he did not refuse.

A rope was tied to Fenny and he was lowered into the well. He was told to not untie himself, that a rope would be let down to tie to Thomas, but Fenny untied himself and attempted to tie Thomas. When he turned Thomas over and saw his crushed head, he passed out. The folk on top were more in shock. Some panicked, so work to get Fenny out was slowed. They could shine a light and see some movement for awhile, but no one would go down, all thinking there was poison gas in the well, even fearing the gas would reach the top and surrounding areas.

They made hooks and finally hooked Fenny's clothes and pulled him out. This had taken over one and a half hours. Fenny was dead. They brought Thomas out also. When they saw the crushed head of Thomas, they could realize Fenny's shock.

Fenny was 22. He had worked a year in West Virginia iron mills. There wasn't any work in this part of the country, so men would go to West Virginia, work and save their money. Young Peter had a girlfriend and they had set the wedding date sometime in August. She took the news of his death real hard. She later left this part of the country and the Fennys never heard of her again.

The Fennys lived in Carroll County, Virginia, in the Crooked Oak section. Peter's nephew, Marvin, still lives on a part of the old homeplace. Peter is buried on the property along with other members of the family. His father was John Fenny, the son of Peter Fenny. From years back, the names of Peter and John were alternately passed down in the family from generation to generation. The death of Peter ended this chain.

Peter's mother's name was Catherine Underwood Fenny. She was from Patrick County, Virginia.

To add to the Fenny family's tragedy, there came a big storm and washed their mill away. To build it back would cost too much, so they had to live without this income.

Peter Fenny's family received the Carnegie Medal. It reads, "Peter Fenny who died attempting to save John Thomas from suffocation in a well May 10, 1911." Marvin Fenny has this medal today, also the bicycle (made around 1900) young Fenny rode to the well site.

The well is under Mrs. Conduff Nester's home. It was filled up, and mostly forgotten, but to a few, the memory of this brave young man remains.