US Coins

Manley donates bell recovered from 1857 shipwreck

The bell recovered from the wreck of the SS “Central America” was donated to the U.S. Naval Academy by Dwight Manley.

Images courtesy of California Gold Marketing Group.

Noted numismatist and philanthropist Dwight Manley donated the SS Central America’s bell to the United States Naval Academy in a May 23 dedication.

According to a press release published the same day, the 268-pound bell joins a 21-foot-tall granite obelisk honoring Commander William Lewis Herndon, the Central America’s captain, that has stood on the Naval Academy’s campus since 1860.

William Lewis Herndon was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1813. He joined the Navy at 15, ascending naval ranks and serving on a number of vessels over a decades-long career that included service in the Mexican-American War. He led an 1851–1852 expedition exploring the valley of the Amazon, and in January 1853 he submitted a report, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, which was enthusiastically received. In 1855, he was ordered to command the Pacific mail steamer George Law, which would later be renamed the Central America; all vessels on that line were required to be captained by U.S. Navy officers.

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

The wreck remained on the seafloor for more than a century, before being discovered in 1988. The recovery of the bell, embossed with the its manufacturer’s name, MORGAN IRON WORKS and NEW YORK 1853, was important in identifying the wreck, according to Bob Evans, the recovery expeditions’ chief science officer and historian, quoted in the press release.

In a press release published for the exhibition of the bell at the 2021 American Numismatic Association World’s Fair of Money in Rosemont, Illinois, Evans shared that the bell is larger than other period ship bells he had encountered, prompting him to wonder “if Morgan Iron Works had intended this for a church, and then decided to use it for a steamship for which they were making the engines.”

The bell was publicly exhibited twice before, at the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio in 1992 and at the Columbus Zoo in 1993.

Manley met with the Naval Academy superintendent, Vice Adm. Sean S. Buck, to offer the bell as a gift to the Academy in August 2021.

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

Manley spoke at the bell’s dedication ceremony on May 23, saying, per the press release, “Commander Herndon is a revered and honored name in the U.S. Navy. His legacy has been part of the annual rite of passage at the Academy with his monument scaled by the current year’s plebes. It is my extreme privilege to be able to unite the bell with the monument so all in attendance each year can experience the sounds Commander Herndon heard as he went down with the ship after 40 hours of valiant effort to save every woman and child aboard.”

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

The first, DD-198, was launched in 1919, decommissioned in 1922, and served in the Coast Guard from 1930 to 1934 before being recommissioned in 1939 and joining the Caribbean Neutrality Patrol in 1940. That ship was decommissioned again in 1940 and turned over to Great Britain as part of the Lend-Lease program and was renamed the HMS Churchill. It was transferred again, to the Russian Navy, in July 1944 and was sunk by a U-boat on Jan. 16, 1945.

The second, DD-638, was launched in February 1942 and served in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters, earning three battle stars; it supported the Normandy landings in June, 1944. It was decommissioned in May 1946, stricken from the Naval Vessel Register in 1971, and sunk as target practice in 1973.

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

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