Name: Charlie Albert Lenaham
Date: ca. 1908
Image Number: SB01cdSB01
Comments: Charlie Albert Lenaham is shown in this charcoal drawing by his dear friend, Susie N. Blair. Charlie was born in 1902 and was the son of Amelia Lenaham, a trusted employee and member of the Powers family. Throughout his life, Charlie was committed to the well-being of Scottsville and her citizens. His nickname throughout the community was Citizen Charlie as he worked at the ice plant in early days, served as a volunteer fireman, and was employed by the local water and light plants. His devotion to his family and his hometown was steadfast, even when it cost him dearly. When the 1969 flood waters of Hurricane Camille struck Scottsville, Virginia Moore describes Charlie's actions to save the town in her book, Scottsville on the James:
"About 1:30 the fire siren blew. Stumbling out of bed, people stepped into water, and merchants rushing to their stores found a torrent engulfing counters, shelves, machinery, household goods, fresh vegetables, clothing. Others slept through all tocsins: siren, lightning, and thunder. Robert Pitts, who had worked long hours at the polls in yesterday's gubernatorial election, waked only when Charlie Lenaham shook him by the shoulder. 'Your chickens is drowned---better git up!' Charlie waked so many he lost everything he had."
Charlie's heroic role in saving townspeople from the flood waters of Hurricane Camille is documented in an article written by Bill Jobes in The Daily Progress, dated 27 January 1969:
"He Rang Alarm As Water Raged Into Scottsville"
SCOTTSVILLE - Charlie Lenaham has been caretaker at the Scottsville Water plant for some 49 years, and when last Tuesday night's rains and flooding began, he was on the job.
The old water plant stands at the south end of town, near the base of the new James River Bridge. Shortly after Charlie came to town nearly half a century ago, he started working at the plant.
The work was really a one-man operation, and although on countless occasions Charlie could have used a second- shift helper, he didn't have one.
So, rather than have to come into town from the house where he was living "way up on the hill," Charlie set up housekeeping in the water plant.
This way, he said, he didn't have to get up on cold mornings and walk the distance into town, and return home the same night, often with the prospect of coming back into town on particularly cold nights to work on preventing water from freezing.
It had been raining hard last Tuesday night, and Charlie, like many others, had a hard time going to sleep.
"It was raining pretty hard when I went to bed; then the lights went off three or four times so I thought I'd sit up and see what it was going to do," he said.
Charlie walked outside several times before the high waters came...mostly to keep an eye on the creek which flows into the James near the water plant. When the water gets too high, he turns on a pump which helps maintain a stable level.
"Between one and two, the creek was coming down Main Street and filling up the gutters," Charlie said. In no time at all, he added, the water was raging through the town. The tiny creek which winds through Scottsville had become a torrential rapids.
"Then I ran back down to the plant and got my boots, and ran back up town and turned in the alarm, " he said. The siren wailed through the darkness, even above the sounds of falling rain and rushing water, and at the source of the siren stood Charlie Lenaham.
Charlie Lenaham, the guy who stayed up nights while others slept and if he minded, didn't really seem to; the guy quick with a kind word to a complete stranger; and the man very nearly a tradition in Scottsville; Charlie Lenaham was on the job when he was needed most. He alerted a town which was about to experience one of the most trying nights in its history.
After ringing the alarm, Charlie went back into the streets where he went from house to house, knocking on doors awakening those asleep inside.
"By this time," Charlie said, "some others had come down to the street, and when they saw the water, they knew what was happening."
"I woke people ups so they could move their cars...by this time it was over the floorboards," he said. Charlie ran to a man's house in town, who had some fowl. "I sure would have hated to see him lose his chickens, but the water carried them away before I got there."
"The rain was just coming down in sheets, and I said, 'Great Day,' " Charlie said. His excitement heightened as he recalled the moment yesterday sitting in the sunshine on the steps of a corner store.
He said that the waters went down somewhat after 3 in the morning, but about four, "it was just ragin'," Charlie recalled. The power of the swollen James was now beginning to be felt by the town.
"About five o'clock, a train sneaked in there and stopped," Charlie said, pointing in the direction of the railroad station. "It was crawlin', just crawlin' around the track, and no wonder, there was water over the tracks!"
When the Albemarle Service Authority took over the town's water supply earlier this year, it left little for Charlie to do at the old water plant, but he decided to remain living there. He still works as a janitor at the local bank.
Charlie, who will be 67 in December, talked about floods of earlier days. "The old people kept telling me about the floods in 1877, but they've never seen anything like it since then until this one," he said.
Charlie said that the canal was the town's main supply route in those days, and when high waters made it unusable, the people had to go overland to North Garden to get food from the Southern Railroad.
Charlie changed the subject. "I'll tell you now, the people sure have had to work around here," he said.
Surely Charlie is right. The people of Scottsville have had to work indeed to clean up after the flood.
Hopefully, the people of Scottsville won't forget Charlie Lenaham; the man who gave the first warning; the man who was on the job when he was needed most.
Charlie Lenaham, who spent so much time warning others, lost all his possessions in the disaster.
Charlie's willingness to help is further elaborated upon in an article written by Elizabeth Wimer in The Scottsville Sun, dated 12 February, 1953:
"Charlie Lenahan Faithfully Carries on Duties for Town; Always Ready to Lend Hand."
"Nearly everybody in Scottsville knows "the man behind the scene" when they turn on the water to their homes or hear the noon siren blow. Both are commonplace occurrences, but the responsibilities of keeping Scottsville in water, and sounding the noon whistle are exacting ones faithfully carried out by Charlie Lenahan."
"Charlie is called 'a good neighbor' in the true sense of the word by a great many residents in this community. Besides operating the water works, he can often be found lending a helping hand to anyone who needs one at the moment. It may be helping to carry packages for a lady, carrying wood, swinging a paint brush, or passing along a friendly word.
"The pumps at the water works are operated by hand, and they take a good deal of attention. In the neat, clean office where Charlie stays while he is on the job, he explained to us the intricate process of how the water is treated from the time it leaves the James River until it is run into the town water system. Charlie started operating the water works in 1921. Before that time, when it was a water plant, ice plant, and electric plant combined, he used to sell ice, and then gradually learned how it all operated. He also took a course in electricity, which he uses in handling the motors on the pumps."
"Charlie has spent most of his life in Scottsville, and has always taken much interest in the life of the community. He used to ring the old bell under the water tank before the siren was put up. The bell was used for a fire signal."
"During World War II, he was responsible for turning out the street lights during the air raid alerts."
"As interested as he is in his work, Charlie also has other enthusiasms. The greatest of these is photography. He has been taking pictures for 20 years, and showed the writer many interesting views of the town and its residents, some of whom have long since grown up or gone away. He has some excellent pictures of the big flood of 1940 when the water at the intersection of Main and Valley streets was high enough to navigate in a canoe. His collection includes snow scenes, birthday and wedding anniversaries, street scenes and informal shots of children and grown-ups. He studies photographic literature, and has recently acquired a flash camera in order to take better interior shots."
"While demonstrating the ins and outs of the water system, this energetic public servant pulled out from nowhere an electric oven. "I like to cook, too," he said. "I bake pies and light bread in here."
"Not one to let time hang heavy on his hands, he bakes while he is on duty and takes the results home to his mother or to the Powell sisters at The Terrace, where he lives."
"Charlie was born in Fluvanna County on the Scottsville side. His mother, Millie (sic) Lenahan, worked for the Powells, and he came here to make his home with them. His formal education includes only a few years at a two-room public school, but somewhere along the line, Charlie has acquired much knowledge of things."
"He is a member of long standing in the Scottsville Volunteer Fire Department, and was a member of the Macedonia Baptist Church, which no longer holds services. Now he says he enjoys going to all the community churches, sometimes one, sometimes another."
"But most of all, Charlie enjoys participating in the life of the community and has proved himself an extremely useful citizen."
Charlie Lenaham lived his entire life at The Terrace in Scottsville. When he died in 1993, the gravestone at right was erected at Union Baptist Church cemetery in honor of this man, who indeed was Scottsville's 'Citizen Charlie.'
Copyright © 2001 by Scottsville Museum
Scottsville Museum · 290 Main Street · Scottsville, Virginia 24590 · 434-286-2247
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Copyright © 2001 by Scottsville Museum