This is a follow-up to the Island History article on the SS Central America, published on September 10, 2023.
The Herndon Monument stands on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. The monument is also known by its alternative long name of “Commander William L. Herndon, USN 1813-1857.” It is a 21-foot-tall grey granite obelisk designed by an unknown sculptor. The obelisk was presented to the Academy by the class of 1860, shortly after the tragedy of the sinking of his vessel, the SS Central America, and his heroic actions that saved passengers although he lost his own life, in Naval tradition of being the last “to go down with his ship.”
From the United States Naval Academy website:
The Herndon Monument is named for Commander William Lewis Herndon, 1813-1857, who possessed the qualities of discipline, teamwork and courage. In command of the SS Central America and home-bound with gold-seekers from California, the ship encountered a three-day hurricane off the coast of North Carolina. Herndon went down with his ship after a gallant effort to save it, its sailors and passengers. A monument was erected on the Yard in his honor shortly after his death.
The Herndon Monument Climb is the traditional culmination of plebe year at the Naval Academy. Demonstrating the teamwork and perseverance they have learned during their first year at the academy, the plebes build a human pyramid to remove the “dixie cup” hat at the top of the vegetable shortening-covered monument and replace it with an upperclassman’s hat. After successfully completing the Herndon climb, the freshmen are no longer called plebes but “fourth class midshipmen.”
On the day of the Herndon Climb plebes are required to remove their shoes prior to starting the climb. Over the years, thousands of these athletic shoes have been donated by the plebe classes to various charities through the Midshipman Action Group, (https://www.usna.edu/PAO/faq_pages/herndon.php).
Thus, the effects of this tragedy well over a century and a half ago remain with us today in numerous ways. The existence of this monument and its connection to our story was graciously pointed out to me by Captain Rob Calhoun, U.S. Navy (Ret), PhD, ’87.
Keeper James Presentations TM is a series of live programs presented by local historians, historical interpreters and performers Keeper James Charlet and Miz Linda Molloy. Each program about the U.S. Life-Saving Service consists of appetizers of true, exciting, highly dramatic Outer Banks stories of ‘America’s Forgotten Heroes.’ For more information, see www.KeeperJames.com/programs.