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Running Into History

A history of Herndon through the Washington & Old Dominion Trail.

Fifty-degree mornings are what runners live for. They signal the end having to run at 6 a.m. to escape the punishing heat of the long, hot summer day.

Fall has arrived ending another year of training and beginning the racing season with a myriad of races in the Washington D.C. metro area ranging from the 5K race (3.1 miles) to 26.2 miles for a marathon.

The Town of Herndon is actually a partner to the hundreds of runners that train for their races. The Washington and Old Dominion (W&OD) Regional Park, which runs through the town, is the perfect training course not only for runners but bicyclists, in-line skaters, as well as walkers who just enjoy the opportunity to get outside for a little exercise and fresh air.

The fact that the W&OD trail has markers on it every half-mile, allows users to keep track of how far they want to go on each run, ride, or walk.

The parking lot behind the Herndon Train Depot on Station Street just off of Elden Street is located at mile 20 on the 45 mile W&OD trail which stretches from Shirlington to Purcellville. It is an easily accessible location to start and finish one’s run for the day.

But, how many runner’s realize how far back in history they are running as they start moving east across Elden Street from the mile 20 marker on a trail that is older than the town itself?

THE VERY FIRST piece of history that one passes is the W&OD caboose. Although the caboose did not actually come from the W&OD Railroad, it is a representation of the railroad and the role the railroad had in the development of the town. The Alexandria, Loudoun and Hampshire Railroad laid the railroad bed through the area in 1857, including a 20-foot by 55-foot passenger and freight house. The freight house was built on what the railroad called Section 23 — 23 miles from the beginning of the railroad in Alexandria as the name Herndon had not yet been associated to the farmland through which the rail ran.

The railroad and the tiny train depot would however give rise first to the postal village named Herndon followed by the incorporation of the town in 1879. Much like the metro does today when it builds a new station, property values rose in the area and businesses centered around the commercial magnet that was the train station.

Interrupted only during the Civil War when the track through Herndon was destroyed, trains ran through Herndon until 1968 as the land on which the railroad ran became a more valuable asset than the meager revenue that the railroad was producing and it passed into history.

In 1989 a repainted railroad caboose was obtained for the town from the Norfolk Southern and placed along the W&OD trail just east of the 20 mile marker.

Herndon resident George Moore was instrumental in bringing this symbol of Herndon’s beginnings of the town. A small marker next to the caboose was dedicated in George’s honor during the town’s 125th Anniversary in 2004. It succinctly describes his effort:

“George thought Herndon should have its own caboose. In 1989, he made it happen.”

IN 1958 A POST OFFICE was built in the little 20 foot by 55-foot train depot just east from the caboose across Station Street.

The new post office needed a name.

Headlines of those days were filled with the great maritime tragedy of the "S.S. Central America," which had sunk in a hurricane on Sept. 12, 1857. The brave captain did all he could to save his ship and its passengers before going down with his ship as only 152 passengers of the 575 on board survived.

The first two names suggested by the local residents, now unknown to history, were rejected as they were already used elsewhere. Legend holds that a survivor of the "S.S. Central America" came forth and suggested the name of the ship’s heroic captain, and the post office was then named of Commander William Lewis Herndon. Interestingly enough, although the name Herndon is now well known, the story of his death and his ship is not. The next great maritime tragedy in 1912 and subsequent movie have overshadowed the story of the "S.S. Central America." Today, "Titanic" is the name most people associate with the bygone era of ocean travel.

The train depot now houses the museum of the Historical Society of Herndon and the Herndon Dulles Visitor Center and is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

TO THE RIGHT of the train depot as runners move east from mile marker 20 is the old Herndon Municipal Building. In 1938 the two-story brick building, now called the Town Hall, was built next to the train station. A new post office was located on the first floor, having been moved out of the depot to larger quarters in numerous locations elsewhere in town. The Municipal Center also housed government offices for the mayor and town treasurer on the second floor and the jail in the basement. In time, additional offices were added for the office of the Town Manager, Departments of Police, Public Works, and Parks and Recreation. Natural gas was installed in the building for heat in 1940. The post office was located at this location until the current facility was built at 645 Elden Street in 1961.

Always crowded, it now houses offices for the Herndon Dulles Chamber of Commerce, the Council for the Arts of Herndon, Herndon Community Television (HCTV), Fairfax County Supervisor Joan DuBois (R-Dranesville), Del. Tom Rust (R-86), the Chestnut Grove Cemetery manager, the town attorney, and the mayor.

CROSSING ELDEN STREET, which is no small feat for runners on a four-lane road with no island in the middle, two more landmarks in Herndon’s history are immediately passed. The first is the Adams-Green Funeral Home followed by a house known locally for the color it has always been painted — yellow. J. Berkley Green purchased the funeral home in 1954 which had been established in Herndon in 1885 and operated by Mr. Thomas E. Reed and then by his son Thomas E. Reed, II.

Green made one of the most important contributions to the history to the town. Due to his interest in history, he borrowed old pictures from the residents of Herndon and had them copied, enlarged and then he placed them in a room in the funeral home where they served to ease the minds of his visitors. This room, located to the right of the entrance of the funeral home became known as the "Herndon Room."

After his death, Berkley willed the collection of over 200 pictures to the historical society and these pictures are now located in the museum in the train depot. Copies of some of these pictures are still displayed in the "Herndon Room" in the funeral home now owned by Chris and Kathryn Adams.

Behind the funeral home is the Yellow House which overlooked the railroad and is still visible through the trees from the W&OD trail today. This house, only known to have been built prior to 1874, has always been painted a shade of yellow. When built, it was located at the site of the Adams-Green Funeral home but was moved when the funeral home was built during World War I. This landmark at one time housed one of the earliest schools in Herndon shortly after it was built.

No longer used as a residence, the Town of Herndon is in the planning process to have the structure moved to a new location within the town.

ANOTHER PAIR of historical structures in Herndon are closer to mile maker 20.5 along the W&OD trail. These are the Kitty Kitchen House and First Baptist Church. The Kitty Kitchen house was built in 1861 at the outbreak of the Civil War. One resident who moved in after the war was Kitty Kitchen, whose memories of Herndon were documented in the book, "Reminiscences of the Oldest Inhabitant, A Nineteenth Century Chronicle." Kitchen provides a colorful picture of Herndon’s past including a first-hand account of Confederate John Mosby’s raid on Herndon Station on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1863. The house is currently occupied by Upscale Bargains Antiques.

Just behind Kitchen’s house from the trail is the First Baptist Church built in 1900.

In 1899 Joseph J. Darlington donated land on his property for the church. The structure was built with gray stone quarried from his property near the eastern town line. Darlington’s house was a magnificent estate located along Elden Street just to the rear of the extended structure of the church. He was a wealthy lawyer from Washington, D.C. who spent his summers in the "resort" town of Herndon. A vanity dresser from the home is on display in the museum in the train depot.

Whatever today’s runners’ goals, it takes less than a mile to travel close to 150 years into Herndon’s past. The W&OD provides both a great venue for running as well as the perfect vantage point for a little time-travel as well.

Chuck Mauro is the president of the Historical Society of Herndon and the author of "Herndon: A Town and Its History" and "Herndon: A History in Images." He is currently training on the W&OD trail in preparation for this year’s Marine Corps Marathon.