It is one of the enduring symbols of the Yard—a 21-foot piece of granite that has stood here since 1860, bridging the U.S. Naval Academy’s past and present with art and awe. Famous for its riotous part in helping plebes ascend to fourth classmen status, it is more commonly a place of quiet contemplation that aptly frames views of the historic and beautiful USNA Chapel. Do you know the story of the Herndon Monument? It may seem as tall as the obelisk, but we can assure you, it’s based on a true tale of unbelievable bravery, something that captures the mission of the Academy itself.
Where It All Began
It was September 9th, 1857, and Commander William Lewis Herndon was shepherding 477 gold-seeking passengers and 101 crew members on the “Ship of Gold,” the S.S. Central America, from California to New York City. They had left Colón, Panama, less than a week earlier, carrying about 30,000 pounds of gold that had been discovered during the Gold Rush in California. That’s about $960 million in today’s dollars. While traversing the Atlantic off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, they were beset by a terrible hurricane. It shredded their sails, flooded the sidewheel steamer and shut down the boiler. As things became more desperate and the bilge pumps and paddle wheels stopped working, Herndon commanded the crew to invert their flag to call for help. To their dismay, a passing ship did not heed their call.
What happened next was detailed in accounts by surviving passengers. Commander Herndon directed a bucket brigade to remove water all night long. He bravely and honestly communicated his dire assessment of the danger, instructing the crew to save the women and children. While they ferried five lifeboats to the brig Marine and another schooner, he remained positive and kept everyone calm. His calm and capable leadership helped save 149 people (including some men) and three that were rescued from a lifeboat the following week.
Herndon, however, did not make it. As a true naval hero, he went down with his ship, a heroic gesture that was recognized by Matthew Fontaine Maury, USN, when he reported the sinking to the Secretary of the Navy. Maury added this homage to the factual account: "The law requires every Commander in the Navy to show himself a good example of virtue and patriotism; and never was example more nobly set or beautifully followed. Captain Herndon, by these noble traits which have so endeared his memory to the hearts of his countrymen, and won the respect and admiration of the crew and passengers of that ship in such a degree as to acquire an influence over them that was marvelous in its effects.” Herndon gave his life for his country.
Making the Monument—and the Climb
Not long after in 1860, the USNA built the Herndon Monument, known by most simply as “Herndon.” It’s inscribed with just that name, “Herdon” on one side of the obelisk, and the date, “September 12, 1857” on the opposite. This monument became the scene of a rite of passage when the Class of 1962 recorded the time it took for them to ascend to its top and retrieve a dixie cup that an upperclassman had placed on the top of the monument. They accomplished this in just twelve minutes. Over the years, this challenge has gotten exceedingly difficult for the plebes, as the upperclassmen have added some obstacles. Now, the midshipmen of the 1st Company apply over 200 pounds of vegetable shortening to the obelisk.
Whichever company has won “Iron Company” at the fourteen hour grueling event known as the Sea Trials leads the plebes as they rush towards Herndon. The plebes then muster their teamwork and assemble a pyramid to reach the top. The Class of 1972 has the record for the fastest time at 1 minute, 30 seconds, when there was no grease to get in the way. By contrast, the Class of 1998 took the longest time, a four hour, five minute and seventeen second slog that involved a glued and taped dixie cup.
Once they capture the dixie cup, they replace it with an upperclassman’s cover and become “Plebes no more!” After enduring the Plebe Year from the Plebe Summer until this milestone, these young midshipmen are thrilled to ascend to the next step. As the midshipmen of the U.S. Naval Academy climb the Herndon Monument, they are bringing to life both a symbolic and physical reminder of their year-long struggle—as well as ultimate victory over the obstacle.
Experience History Here
As you stroll across the Yard, the Herndon Monument beckons. It pierces the sky and throws a striking silhouette against the quadrangle, inviting you to sit and contemplate the history it holds. From marking the life of a man who gave his life for his country, to serving as the bridge to fourth classmen for generations of midshipmen, Herndon holds a special place in U.S. Naval History lore. Take some time to see it on your next trip here. When you visit the Yard, you’re giving to the midshipmen who give their all for our country. Your USNA tours, shopping and dining all contribute to the extracurricular activities for the Brigade, like cultural arts, music, theater, club sports and more. Be a part of the history that is here now.