On January 13, 1840, en route from New York City to Boston, the paddlewheel steamboat Lexington caught fire. Of the estimated 143 people on board, only four survived. Let’s look at this tragedy and see what happened—and what might have been avoided.
Commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, Lexington was one of the fastest and most luxurious steamships in operation along the east coast. She was commissioned in early 1834 and the keel was laid in September of that year. Unlike later steamships, no detailed plans of Lexington were made. Instead, a wooden model of the hull was created and altered to fit Vanderbilt’s ideas. Using this model as a guide, full-sized outlines were then drawn out in chalk on the hull timbers, which were then cut and assembled by the carpenters. The engine was constructed at West Point Foundry, and was one of the most efficient of its time. The finished ship was 207 feet long and weighed 488 long tons. Lexington was also one of the most luxuriously outfitted steamships on the east coast, with teak deck railings, cabin doors, staircases, and paneling. She also included both a lounge and a dining salon, with elegant deck lighting, curtains, and furniture.
In 1835, Lexington began service as a day boat between New York City and Providence, Rhode Island, and in 1837, she began service to Stonington, Connecticut, the terminus from the newly built railroad from Boston.
At 4:00 pm on January 13, 1840, Lexington left her pier on Manhattan’s East River, headed for Stonington. She was carrying 143 passengers and crew, along with 150 bales of cotton. She was expected to arrive in Stonington the following morning to meet the train from Boston. The ship’s usual captain, Jacob Vanderbilt, was not onboard due to illness, but veteran captain George Child was behind the wheel.
At 7:30 pm, the first mate noticed the casings and woodwork around the smokestack were on fire. At this time, Lexington was four miles off Eaton’s Neck on the north shore of Long Island. Crew members tried throwing water on the flames, using buckets and boxes and even a small hand-pumped fire engine. However, it soon became apparent the fire could not be extinguished and the ship’s three lifeboats were prepared for launch.
Lexington’s paddlewheel was still churning at full speed, since none of the crew could reach the engine room to shut off the boilers. The first lifeboat was sucked into the wheel, killing all occupants. Captain Child had fallen into this lifeboat, and was among those killed. The ropes used to lower the other two boats were then cut incorrectly, causing the lifeboats to hit the water stern first and promptly sink.
Pilot Stephen Manchester turned the ship toward the shore in hopes of breaching it, however the drive-rope that controlled the rudder quickly burned through and the engine stopped two miles from shore. Lexington, now out of control, drifted northeast, away from land.
The cargo of cotton quickly ignited, spreading the fire from the smokestack to the entire superstructure. The remaining passengers and crew tossed empty baggage containers and unburned cotton bales into the water as makeshift rafts. The center of Lexington’s main deck collapsed shortly after 8:00 pm, and the fire continued to spread to such an extent that most of the passengers and crew were forced to jump into the frigid water my midnight. Those with nothing to climb onto quickly succumbed to hypothermia.
Lexington was still burning when she sank at 3:00am.
One of the passengers lost was noted radical minister and abolitionist Karl Follen. According to legend, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was scheduled to make the trip, but missed it due to a discussion with his publisher over the poem, The Wreck of the Hesperus, which featured a sinking ship.
Only four survived the disaster:
Chester Hilliard, 24, the only passenger to survive, had been helping crew members toss bales of cotton to people in the water. He climbed onto the last bale at 8:00, along with ship’s fireman Benjamin Cox, who later succumbed to hypothermia. Hilliard was rescued at 11:00am by the sloop Merchant.
Stephen Manchester, the pilot. He and around 30 others huddled at the bow of Lexington until around midnight, when the flames closed in on them. He climbed onto a bale of cotton with passenger Peter McKenna, who died of exposure three hours later. Manchester was also rescued by Merchant at noon.
Charles Smith, one of Lexington’s firemen, climbed down the stern of the ship and clung to the rudder, along with four other people. The five dove into the sea just before the ship sank around 3:00 am, then climbed onto a floating piece of the paddlewheel. Smith was the only survivor, and was rescued by Merchant at 2:00 the next afternoon.
David Crowley, the second mate, drifted for 43 hours on a bale of cotton, finally coming ashore 50 miles to the east, at Baiting Hollow, Long Island. Crowley, weak, dehydrated, and suffering from exposure, staggered a mile to the house of Matthias and Mary Hutchinson, collapsing after he knocked on their door. A doctor was immediately summoned and once well enough, Crowley was taken to Riverhead, where he eventually recovered.
An inquest jury found a fatal flaw in Lexington’s design to be the major cause of the fire. Her boilers had originally been built to burn wood, but had been converted to coal in 1839. This conversion had not been properly completed, and not only did coal burn hotter than wood, but extra coal had been burned on that night because of rough seas. A spark from the over-heated smokestack set the casing ablaze on the freight deck, a fire which quickly spread to the bales of cotton, which were stored improperly close to the smokestack.
Lexington had suffered previous, smaller fires, which had been extinguished successfully, however, nothing had been done to correct her problem.
The jury also found crewmen’s mistakes and violation of safety regulations to be at fault. Chester Hilliard testified that, once crew members noticed the fire, they went below to check the engines before attempting to extinguish the flames. The jury believed the fire could have been defeated if the crew had acted immediately. Also, not all of Lexington’s fire buckets could be located during the emergency, and only around twenty passengers were able to locate life preservers. The fiasco at the lifeboat launches was blamed on crew carelessness as well.
The sloop Improvement, which had been less than five miles from the burning steamship, never came to Lexington’s aid. Her captain, William Tirrell, explained he was running on a schedule and didn’t stop because he didn’t want to miss the high tide. The public became rightly furious at this excuse, and Tirrell was attacked by the press in the days following the disaster.
The Lexington remains Long Island Sound’s worst steamboat disaster. Ultimately, no legislation was passed in the wake of the tragedy, though critic John Neal issued a call for better construction and operation practices in the New York Evening Signal. Not until twelve years later, when the steamboat Henry Clay burned on the Hudson River, were new safety regulations imposed.