It took a good two hours of calling around the Covington, Va., area to find someone with the foggiest notion of where Peter’s Rock might be found. Local history books said the historic site was out on Highway 311, just past the entrance to the Alleghany Cemetery. But no Alleghany Cemetery shows up on Google Maps, or on printed Virginia maps for that matter. No one at the local historical society had a clue where it was. They drew a blank in the county planning department, too.
As previously blogged, Peter’s Rock is where distant relative Peter Wright allegedly took refuge during a severe Appalachian mountain snowstorm in the mid-1700s. After several days of waiting out the storm, which must have dumped a ton of snow, Wright resorted to eating his moccasin for sustenance, according to local lore. Finally a deer ambled by. He ate it before he perished.
The tale, which presumably explains a genetic disposition among family member to chew on shoes, was retold in one of those beautiful accounts of early American oral history produced by the Works Progress Administration during the recession of the early 1930s. According to a Mrs. McClintic, the rock where Wright waited out the storm was located on the right side of State Route 311, just beyond the entrance to Alleghany Cemetery, close to the home of one John Lewis who lived near what was then known as Big Ridge.
Good luck finding the location with those landmarks today. The problem, I learned as I dug deeper, is that the cemetery doesn’t go by the name of Alleghany anymore. Thankfully, someone in the county planning department finally had an idea how I could figure out where the rock outcropping was. “Tawny lives up there,” said the planning official. “Let me see if she can help you. I’ll have her call you back.”
The phone rang two minutes later. “How can I help ya?” Tawny drawled in a lovely mountain accent. She could help me, she said, because she had some unused long-distance minutes on her personal cell phone. I quickly explained to her the nature of my quest. I was looking for a rock outcropping near the entrance to the Alleghany Cemetery off Route 311.
“You’re talking about the Lewis Tunnel Cemetery. I know where it is. Some of my relatives are buried up thar. I drive by thar on my way to work every day. Where ya coming from?”
“The north, I-81.”
“Well then ya want to take I-64 west and go about eight miles beyond Covington. Go to the Callahan exit. You got to be real careful when you get to the end of the ramp because ya might get sideswiped by one of them lumber trucks. Happens a couple times a year.
“You want to go left on 159. Then it’s about 12 miles to where you git to the intersection with 159 and 311 in Crows. Bear right on 311. You go about two or three miles up an two-lane highway. It’s not an easy road. You’ll make two sharp curves till you see what used to be a restaurant, the Four Leafs.”
“Sorry, could you take me from the intersection with 311 again?”
“Sure. You bar to the right. You make two sharp turns. You’ll see a shanty with a trailer. You wanna go straight ahead. You pass a yellow house on the left with logs piled in the yard. Then there’s a two-story white house with goats on the right. It used to be an old store, Bonnie Smith Grocery. There’s a road beyond it, Lewis Tunnel Road. That’ll take you right up to the graveyard. If you go through the tunnel, you’ve gone too far.”
“Do you know where the rock is?”
“I can’t say I do. But I know someone who might. I’ll call ya right back.”
The phone rings five minutes later.
“I talked to John Davis. He lives right across the street. He says it’s right there beyond the grocery. The road juts out to the right. It’s right next to a stream. That’s probably why the deer came by, to drink from the stream.”
We got lost despite Tawny’s explicit directions. We found the Interstate exit, drove 12 miles, and made a right on 311. But we went through the tunnel and crossed the border into West Virginia before we would the road leading to the cemetery. Circling back, we ran into two young men who had been clearing wood out of the forest. They knew right where the cemetery was.
We drove to the designated spot. Sure enough, just beyond the road leading up to the cemetery, there was a rock ledge jutting out of the side of the hill. It was right next to a creek. The shelter it created didn’t seem big enough to hide a person. But maybe erosion had filled the cavity with soil through the years. It seemed a shame that no roadside sign commemorated the rock.
We saw several other signs referring to Peter Wright on the way to The Rock, and we saw others on the way out. In fact, an entire 52-mile mountain range is named after Peter Wright, who marked it with trails that are used by hunters to this day. One of the earliest settlers to Bottetourt County Virginia, Wright was the first to hike over the peak of the mountain that now bears his name.
Wright surveyed most of what it now Covington, Virginia, where we had lunch before setting out to find The Rock. Many Wrights still live in Covington today. How does an amateur genealogist know this? A half dozen stores in town still bear the Wright name–Wright Realty, Wright Stop Food Store, J.A. Wright Ford. The biggest employer, though, is Mead-Vestvaco, which operates a huge paper mill just above the town. The sharp smell produced by the plant lingers in my nostrils to this day.
According to a history book, Peter Wright operated a gristmill that was probably located at the edge of the Jackson River, near the current location of the Covington High School football field. We had to wander through a parking lot of semis and trailers to find that spot, less than a mile downriver from the paper plant. One could only imagine what the scene looked like 250 years before. Only imagine….