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Herndon to Celebrate Namesake

19th century Naval Commander William Herndon honored in historical heritage awareness drive.

In an effort to impart the town’s historical heritage, Herndon’s residents will join with regional political leaders in honoring William Lewis Herndon, the fallen 19th century Naval commander for whom the town was named.

The event, a joint effort between the Herndon-Dulles Visitor’s Center and the Town of Herndon, is part of a series of "legacy events" designed to promote Virginia’s history as part of the state’s 400th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown.

It is set to take place in front of the Herndon Depot on Sunday, Sept. 9, coinciding with the 150th anniversary of Herndon’s death when the SS Central America sank in a storm off the coast of North Carolina on Sept. 12, 1857. It was carrying a shipment of California gold under federal mailing duties.

"Most people don’t realize why we’re named Herndon, or of Commander Herndon’s life and his historic death," said Connie Hutchinson, a Herndon town council member and president of the Herndon-Dulles Visitors Center. "This is a way for us to share that historic legacy that he left and some of the values the he embodied that the town shares."

The event will feature a retelling Herndon’s story, from his early years as a U.S. Naval officer to his death when he chose to help rescue the passengers and crew of his ship and, as a result, was killed in its sinking. An historical recreationist who occasionally portrays Herndon at community events will be on hand to speak with children and families about his history. The Herndon-Dulles Visitor’s Center hopes to dedicate a plaque to commemorate the man in his hometown of Fredericksburg and purchase a 19th century Naval sword recreation engraved in his honor, according to Hutchinson.

THE HERNDON NAME was originally assigned to the town when early residents of the area were looking for a proper name for their post office in 1858, according to Carol Bruce, president of the Herndon Historical Society.

"It was at that time that the sinking of Commander Herndon’s ship was just all over the newspapers," Bruce said. "So, according to local legend, one man stood up and just happened to suggest that they name the building in honor of the man who commanded the [SS] Central America."

The name eventually proved to be of more value to the town than simply a last minute suggestion, Bruce said. Stories of Herndon’s earlier explorations of the South American Amazon jungle and his brave and selfless evacuation of the SS Central America on the days leading up to his death have emerged as some of the shared traditional values of the town, Hutchinson added.

"We’ve found a lot of quotes from some of the survivors of the shipwreck about Commander Herndon, and they described him as very calm and orderly and concerned with everybody’s safety," she said. "It’s that type of bravery and really selfless sense of duty that I think a lot of people admired."

THE COMMEMORATIVE ceremony will feature the reading of a brief biography of Commander Herndon and a dedication ceremony of the memorial materials gathered for the event, Hutchinson said. Its main objective is to impart onto several generations of Herndon area residents the significance of the town’s name for the first time, according Gary Rinker, a former Herndon resident now living in Sterling who will portray Commander Herndon at the event.

"We need to help young people recognize the values the town was founded on," Rinker said. "When you look at Mount Vernon, you have George Washington … you need to have a sense of who your founding fathers are."

Imparting that sense of history and teaching people of the origins of the town’s name will continue to be part of a specific and collaborative effort to spread knowledge of the town’s namesake, Hutchinson said.

"It’s for the general public, but it’s also for the history buffs and Herndon residents who have been active in the community to come and learn a little more about it," she said.

"We want to have people cherish their heritage and pass that along to their families from generation to generation," said Rinker. "It’s through living history and telling these stories and having these presentations that can allow us to best reach that goal."