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The Town of Herndon is situated on the western edge of Fairfax County, Virginia, on land that was originally patented to Robert "King" Carter, Jr. and Thomas Barnes. The Carter patent contained the majority of the site of Herndon in Fairfax County while the Barnes land involved a small portion along the Loudoun County line. In 1688, King Charles II of England granted almost five and one-third million acres, known as the Northern Neck, to Thomas Culpeper, second Baron Culpeper of Thoresway. A very small portion of this immense grant became the land on which Herndon is situated. Two thousand acres of this land were subsequently granted by Thomas Fairfax, sixth baron Fairfax of Cameron (son-in-law of Lord Culpeper) to the Carter and Barnes patents in 1728.
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, this part of Fairfax County was primarily agricultural. The first sign of settlement was the construction in the early 19th century of a mill in a hollow along a stream near present-day Elden and Locust Streets. As farming flourished and additional settlers arrived in the region, the area around the mill was developed. In 1857, this settlement was selected as one through which the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad would pass.
With the building of the depot in 1857 and the completion of the railroad to Herndon in 1859, more settlers arrived and the village soon had several stores and a livery stable. A post office was needed and application was made for it to Washington, D.C. On July 13, 1858, the settlement was named Herndon and William W. Hollingsworth was appointed postmaster. Various names had been suggested for the community but had been rejected by the U.S. Post Office Department because they were already in use in Virginia or because the department insisted that post offices should not be named after local families. Legend has it that a local man, whose name was not recorded and who had been involved in a shipwreck, brought forward the name Herndon to commemorate the captain of the ship upon hearing ofthe local dilemma.
Captain William Lewis Herndon was the skipper of the packet Central America that sailed from New York to Panama, a main route for the California gold rush. On September 12, 1857, the ship sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras with the loss of 426 men, including Herndon, who went down with his ship. Most of the women and children were rescued and Herndon was praised for his orderly removal of passengers, his disciplined crew, and his personal bravery.
The news of the sinking received front-page coverage in the New York Times and Herndon became a national hero. A monument to him was erected at the United States Naval Academy and on March 6, 1858, the Virginia General Assembly instructed Governor Henry A. Wise to commission a gold medal to be presented "in the name of the commonwealth, to the widow of the deceased, as a simple testimonial of respect for a virtuous and brave man, and a noble and gallant officer." Within five months, a Virginia town also had commemorated this naval officer and, at the same time, had solved the problem of selecting a name.
William Lewis Herndon was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1812 and was named for his uncle, Captain William Lewis, who was lost at sea in 1815 with the brig Epervier. Herndon received an appointment as a midshipman in the U.S. Navy on November 1, 1828, two years after the death of his parents. Over the next fourteen years, he served on a variety of ships including the Constellation, the Constitution and the Independence. In 1842, he became an assistant to his brother-in-law, Matthew Fontaine Maury, Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments, which they transformed into the U.S. Naval Observatory. From 1850 to 1852, Herndon conducted research on the Amazon River; that voyage resulted in a two-volume work, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon. The Town was commemorating not only a naval hero but also a scholarly explorer.
Shortly after the founding of Herndon at the outbreak of the Civil War, the Union Army seized the Alexandria, Loudoun & Hampshire Railroad and secured it for their use as far as Vienna. Most of the remaining tracks and bridges were destroyed or damaged as General Robert E. Lee and his Confederate forces withdrew from Northern Virginia. Herndon was spared destruction during the war because of its proximity to the Union forces, although major battles were fought in nearby Manassas. Both sides seemed to consider Herndon a useful no-man's-land where provisions and information could be exchanged.
After the Civil War, many northern soldiers remained to settle in the area, and residents from northern states also moved to this part of Virginia with its moderate climate and lower land prices. Ancel St. John, of New Jersey, was a political leader of the new arrivals who also included families from Pennsylvania and New York. These newcomers from the north were probably responsible for the founding in 1872 of the Methodist Episcopal Church in Herndon which was affiliated with the northern governing body of that denomination. This simple frame Gothic Revival-style church is located on the corner of Center and Elden Streets and is now used by the Church of Jesus Christ. Lottie Dyer Schneider, in her Memories of Herndon, wrote that "about this time,  a number of New England people had come to town who were Congregationalists. The Methodists graciously offered the use of their church to these people for worship." By 1873, the Congregationalists had completed their own building on the corner of Pine and Monroe Streets, and by 1876, the local Episcopalians had done likewise with their chapel on Grace Street.
Herndon established its first school in 1869 when the state constitution mandated free public education. When that building burned, a new one was constructed on Center Street and has since been converted into a residence. In addition, Mrs. Robert A. Castleman established the Herndon Episcopal Seminary for Girls in her residence on Grace Street and that establishment remained in operation until the mid-1920s. In 1889, the Fortnightly Club, a literary group, was established and that association was responsible for the Town's first library, which was constructed in 1926 in a classical-styled building on Spring Street.
Growth continued in Herndon throughout the late 19th century, culminating in the development of the Van Vleck's Addition in 1895, a sixteen-block subdivision located off Dranesville Road. At the turn of the century, dairy farming was the most important industry in Fairfax County and the majority of its 18,850 residents were farmers. Most of the leading dairy producers in the county were located around Herndon, and farmers from Chantilly to Dranesville shipped their milk daily on six trains to Washington dairies for processing and distribution. By 1911, Herndon was home for 19 milk shippers, four land agents, a hotel, and two guesthouses. In addition, a newspaper office, a bank and several general stores lined the streets.
In 1911, the railroad line became electrified when it was leased by and connected to the Great Falls & Old Dominion Railroad, an electric trolley line started by John R. McLean and Senator Stephen B. Elkins in 1906. These successful entrepreneurs had built a 14-mile-long trolley to scenic Great Falls on the Potomac River, and had begun developing several suburban communities along the route including what is now McLean. The rise of the clean, speedy and quiet electric trolley made living outside of the city convenient and there were fortunes to be created in the process. McLean and Elkins therefore decided to expand their operations and tied into the existing Washington & Ohio line. The combined companies became the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad, and Herndon received its first electric trolley in 1912.
The arrival of summer residents, commuters and real estate developers began to change the rural character of Herndon and other Fairfax County communities. By 1925, the majority of the 22,000 county residents were living in towns, although in that same year, Fairfax County was still the leading producer of dairy products in the state. This was evidenced by the Herndon dairyman, Ben Middleton, who owned "Sadie, the best known Holstein in the world." This prize dairy cow produced over thirty tons of milk and one ton of butterfat in three years.
Herndon was dramatically changed on March 22, 1917, when a terrible fire destroyed most of the downtown including sixteen businesses and two homes. The downtown was quickly rebuilt and most of the new buildings were constructed of brick instead of wood. Residential growth continued, as more Washington, D.C. workers chose Herndon as a convenient town from which they could commute to their jobs. Many new residences were built in the popular styles of the day, including several Sears and Roebuck houses that were brought in unassembled on flatbed railroad cars.
After the death of both of the founding partners of the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad, the company was mismanaged. Financial losses contributed to the deterioration of service and by 1932, because of the Great Depression, the company was put into receivership. After continued reductions in operations, passenger service was eliminated in 1941, but it was reinstated in 1942 because of the rapid growth of the Washington area during the war years. Shortly thereafter, the freight operations changed from electric to diesel power. From 1959 to 1961, the line experienced its busiest years ever when it was used to haul sand and construction materials to build neighboring Dulles Airport, which opened in 1962. However, that one-time boom did not keep the Washington & Old Dominion Railroad from discontinuing service in 1968. Today, the tracks are gone and the right-of-way is used for power lines and a regional trail system.