The steamship Lexington was built in 1835 at the Bishop
and Simonson Shipyards in New York City. The ship was commissioned
by Cornelius Vanderbilt, a prominent figure in the shipping
industry. It was a 207-foot-long sidewheel steamer weighing
488 gross tons.
The Lexington began service as a day boat between New York
City and Providence, Rhode Island in 1835. The ship began
service to Stonington, Connecticut in 1837. She was sold
to the New Jersey Steamship Navigation and Transportation
Company in December of 1838 for around US$60,000. From 1835
to 1840, the Lexington was the fastest vessel en route from
New York City to Boston.
The Lexington departed its pier on Manhattan's East River
at 4:00 p.m. on January 13, 1840 bound for Stonington, CT.
She was carrying 143 passengers and crew and an additional
cargo of 150 bales of cotton. The ship was expected to arrive
in Stonington the following morning in time to meet the
train that connected with Boston.
The ship's usual captain, Captain Jacob Vanderbilt, could
not make the voyage due to an illness. In his place that
evening was veteran Captain George Child.
At 7:30 p.m., the ship's first mate noticed that the woodwork
and casings about the smokestack were on fire. The ship
was four miles off Eaton's Neck on the north shore of Long
Island. Crew members used buckets and boxes to throw water
on the flames, as well as a small, hand-pumped fire engine.
Pilot Stephen Manchester turned the ship toward the shore
in hopes of beaching it. The drive-rope that controlled
the rudder quickly burned through, and the engine stopped
two miles from shore. The ship, out of control, drifted
northeast, away from land.
Once it was apparent that the fire could not be extinguished,
the ship's three lifeboats were prepared for launch. The
ship's paddlewheel was still churning at full speed, since
crewmen could not reach the engine room to shut off the
boilers. The first boat was sucked into the wheel, killing
its occupants. Captain Child had fallen into the lifeboat
and was among those killed. The ropes used to lower the
other two boats were cut incorrectly, causing the boats
to hit the water stern-first. Both boats promptly sank.
The ship's cargo of cotton ignited quickly, causing the
fire to spread from the smokestack to the entire superstructure.
Passengers and crew threw empty baggage containers and bales
of cotton into the water to be used as rafts. The center
of the main deck collapsed shortly after 8:00 p.m.
The fire spread to such an extent that most of the passengers
and crew were forced to jump into the sub-zero water by
midnight. Those who had nothing to climb onto quickly succumbed
to hypothermia. The ship was still burning when it sank
at 3:00 a.m.
Of the 143 people on board the Lexington, only four survived:
Chester Hilliard, 24, the only passenger to survive, had
helped crew members throw bales of cotton to people in the
water. He climbed onto the last bale at 8:00 p.m., along
with ship’s fireman Benjamin Cox. About eight hours
later, Cox, weak from hypothermia, fell off of the bale
and drowned. At 11:00 a.m., Hilliard was rescued by the
Stephen Manchester, the ship's pilot, was among the last
to leave the Lexington. He and about 30 others huddled at
the bow of the ship until about midnight, when the flames
closed in on them. Shortly after he stepped onto a makeshift
raft with several passengers, the raft sank. He then climbed
onto a bale of cotton with a passenger named Peter McKenna.
Three hours later, McKenna died of exposure. Manchester
was rescued by the sloop Merchant at noon.
Charles Smith, one of the ship's firemen, descended the
stern of the ship and clung to the ship's rudder along with
four other people. The five dove into the sea just before
the ship sank and climbed onto a floating piece of the paddlewheel.
The other four men died of exposure during the night, and
Smith was rescued by the sloop Merchant at 2:00 the following
David Crowley, the second mate, drifted for 43 hours on
a bale of cotton, coming ashore 50 miles east, at Baiting
Hollow, Long Island. Weak, dehydrated and suffering from
exposure, he staggered a mile to the house of Matthias and
Mary Hutchinson, and collapsed after knocking on the door.
A doctor was immediately summoned, and once well enough,
Crowley was taken to River Head, where he recovered.
An inquest jury found a fatal flaw in the ship's design
to be the primary cause of the fire. The ship's boilers
were originally built to burn wood, but were converted to
burn coal in 1839. This conversion had not been properly
completed. Not only did coal burn hotter than wood, but
extra coal was being burned on the night of the fire because
of rough seas. A spark from the super-heated smokestack
lit the stack's casing ablaze on the freight deck. The fire
then spread to the bales of cotton, which were stored improperly
close to the stack.
Previous, smaller fires that had occurred due to the design
flaw had been extinguished; however, nothing had been done
to correct the problem.
The jury also found crewmen's mistakes and violation of
safety regulations to be at fault. Hilliard testified that
once crew members noticed the fire, they went below deck
to check the engines before attempting to fight the blaze.
The jury believed that the fire could have been extinguished
if the crew had acted immediately. Also, not all of the
ship's fire buckets could be found during the fire. Only
about 20 of the passengers were able to locate life preservers.
The crew members were also careless in launching the lifeboats,
all of which sank.
The sloop Improvement, which had been less than five miles
from the burning ship, never came to the Lexington's aid.
Captain William Tirrell of the Improvement explained that
he was running on a schedule; he did not attempt a rescue
because he didn’t want to miss the high tide. The
public became furious at this excuse, and Tirrell was attacked
by the press in the days following the disaster.
Ultimately, no legislation was passed by the U.S. government
in the wake of the tragedy. It was not until the steamboat
Henry Clay burned on the Hudson River 12 years later that
new safety regulations were imposed.
The Lexington fire remains the Long Island Sound's worst
steamboat disaster. One hundred thirty-nine of the 143 aboard
An attempt was made to raise the Lexington in 1842. The
ship was brought to the surface briefly, and a 30 pound
(14 kg) mass of melted silver was recovered from the hull.
The chains supporting the hull snapped, and the ship broke
apart and sank back to the bottom of the Sound.
Today, the Lexington sits in 140 feet of water, broken
into three sections. There is allegedly still gold and silver
that has not been recovered. Adolphus S. Harnden of the
Boston and New York Express Package Car Office had reportedly
been carrying $18,000 in gold and silver coins and $80,000
in paper money at the time of the sinking. The silver recovered
in 1842 is all that has been found to date.