Manley donates bell recovered from 1857 shipwreck

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Famous numismatist and philanthropist Dwight Manley donated the SS central America bell at the United States Naval Academy during a dedication May 23.

According to a press release issued the same day, the 268-pound bell joins a 21-foot-tall granite obelisk honoring Commander William Lewis Herndon, the central America captain, which has been on the campus of the Naval Academy since 1860.

William Lewis Herndon was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1813. He joined the Navy at age 15, rose through the ranks of the Navy, and served on a number of ships during a decades-long career that included service in the Mexican-American War. He led an expedition from 1851 to 1852 exploring the Amazon valley, and in January 1853 he submitted a report, Explore the Amazon Valley, which was enthusiastically received. In 1855, he was ordered to command the liner Pacific mail Georges Lawwhich will later be renamed the central America; all ships on this line were to be commanded by United States Navy officers.

The next part of Herndon’s story is relatively well known as part of American naval history and numismatic traditions familiar to many coin collectors. After loading tens of thousands of pounds of California gold coins and bullion from assayers and hundreds of passengers at Aspinwall (now Colon) Panama, the central America en route to New York sank in a hurricane off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and sank on September 12, 1857. Herndon is credited with saving the lives of 152 of the 568 passengers, choosing to go down with the ship . His distinguished service and sacrifice earned him the U.S. Naval Academy obelisk monument, which “plebes” (freshmen) must climb at the end of their spring semester.

The wreckage lay on the seabed for more than a century, before being discovered in 1988. The recovery of the bell, engraved with the name of its maker, MORGAN IRON WORKS and NEW YORK 1853, was important in identifying wreckage, according to Bob Evans. , scientific director and historian of the recovery expeditions, quoted in the press release.

In a press release issued for the display of the bell at the 2021 American Numismatic Association World Money Fair in Rosemont, Illinois, Evans shared that the bell is larger than other ship bells from era he had encountered, prompting him to wonder “if Morgan Iron Works had planned this for a church and then decided to use it for a steamer whose engines they were making.

The bell has been on public display twice before, at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio in 1992 and at the Columbus Zoo in 1993.

Manley met with Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Admiral Sean S. Buck to present the bell as a gift to the Academy in August 2021.

A letter to Manley from Assistant Secretary of the Navy Meredith Berger expressing her “sincere appreciation” for the donation of the bell is quoted in the press release.

Manley spoke at the bell dedication ceremony on May 23, saying, according to the press release, “Commander Herndon is a revered and honored name in the United States Navy. His legacy has been part of the Academy’s annual rite of passage with his monument being scaled by the current year’s plebs. It is my extreme privilege to be able to join the bell to the monument so that all who attend each year can hear the sounds heard by Commander Herndon as he sank with the ship after 40 hours of valiant efforts to save every woman and each child on board.

The obelisk and the bell are not Herndon’s only commemorations. According to the US Navy’s Naval History and Heritage Command website entry on Herndon, two destroyers were named after Herndon.

The first, the DD-198, was launched in 1919, decommissioned in 1922, and served with the Coast Guard from 1930 to 1934 before being recommissioned in 1939 and joining the Caribbean Neutrality Patrol in 1940. This ship was decommissioned again in 1940 and handed over to Britain under the Lend-Lease scheme and renamed HMS Churchill. She was again transferred to the Russian Navy in July 1944 and was sunk by a U-boat on January 16, 1945.

The second, DD-638, was launched in February 1942 and served in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, earning three battle stars; she supported the Normandy landings in June 1944. She was decommissioned in May 1946, struck off the Navy ship register in 1971 and sunk as a practice target in 1973.

Herndon’s commemorations are not limited to naming ships. According to the National Sailing Hall of Fame entry on Herndon, two towns, one in Virginia and one in Pennsylvania, are also named after her.

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