Lexington (steamship)

Last updated
A lithograph of the fire on board the Lexington, by Nathaniel Currier. Awful conflagration of the steam boat Lexington.jpg
A lithograph of the fire on board the Lexington, by Nathaniel Currier.

The Lexington was a paddlewheel steamboat operating along the Northeastern coast of the United States from 1835 to 1840. Commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt, it was one of the fastest and most luxurious steamers in operation.


On 13 January 1840, en route from New York City to Boston, the casing around the ship's smokestack caught fire, igniting nearly 150 bales of cotton, and they had to abandon ship. Of the estimated 143 people on board, only four survived. The fire had been caused by overheating, due to faulty work on converting the engine for coal-burning. This was compounded by serious errors by the crew, including violation of safety regulations, and the failure of a nearby vessel to come to the aid of the survivors.

Specifications and route

The Lexington was commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt in early 1834. The ship's keel was laid down at the Bishop and Simonson Shipyards in New York in September 1834. Unlike later steamboats, no detailed plans of the ship were made. Instead, a wooden model of the hull was carved and altered according to Vanderbilt's satisfaction. Using the model as a guide, full-sized outlines were then drawn in chalk on the timber to be used for the hull, which was then cut and assembled by carpenters. The engine of the Lexington was constructed at the West Point Foundry. Making use of a "walking beam" connection mechanism, activated by a 48-inch-diameter (1.2 m) steam cylinder with an 11-foot (3.4 m) stroke, the ship's engine was one of the most efficient of its time. Measuring 207 feet (63 m) in length and weighing 488 long tons (496 t), the Lexington was also one of the most luxuriously outfitted steamers on its route, incorporating ornate teak deck railings, cabin doors, staircases, and panelling; a large cabin including both a lounge and a dining saloon; and elegant deck lighting, curtains, and furniture.

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, the terminus of the newly built railroad from Boston, in 1837. She was sold to the New Jersey Steamship Navigation and Transportation Company in December 1838 for around US$60,000. From 1835 to 1840, the Lexington was the fastest vessel en route from New York City to Boston.

Fire and wreck

The Lexington left its pier on Manhattan's East River at 4:00 p.m. on January 13, 1840 bound for Stonington, Connecticut, the terminus of the newly built railroad from Boston. She was carrying 143 passengers and crew and a 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, Jacob Vanderbilt (the brother of Cornelius), could not make the voyage owing to illness, and was replaced by 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. 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.

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.

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 frigid 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.

According to legend, poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was scheduled to travel on the Lexington's fatal voyage, but missed it due to discussing the merits of a recent poem, The Wreck of the Hesperus, with a publisher. The poem also included a ship sinking.

One of the passengers who was lost in the catastrophe was the noted radical minister and abolitionist Karl Follen (1796–1840).

The disaster was depicted in a celebrated colored lithograph by Currier and Ives, and was their first major-selling print. A black-and-white lithograph was also produced from an eyewitness account.


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 the bale and drowned. At 11:00 a.m., Hilliard was rescued by the sloop Merchant.

Stephen Manchester, the ship's pilot. 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, around 3:00 a.m., 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 afternoon.

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 Riverhead, where he recovered. [1] [ better source needed ]


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 over-heated smokestack set 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, though critic John Neal issued a call for better construction and operation practices in the New York Evening Signal. [2] 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 Long Island Sound's worst steamboat disaster. One hundred thirty-nine of the 143 aboard perished.

Salvage attempts

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 Long Island 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.

Related Research Articles

Steamboat Smaller than a steamship; boat in which the primary method of marine propulsion is steam power

A steamboat is a boat that is propelled primarily by steam power, typically driving propellers or paddlewheels. Steamboats sometimes use the prefix designation SS, S.S. or S/S or PS ; however, these designations are most often used for steamships.

PS <i>General Slocum</i> Passenger steamboat; sank in New York City in 1904

The PS General Slocum was a sidewheel passenger steamboat built in Brooklyn, New York, in 1891. During her service history, she was involved in a number of mishaps, including multiple groundings and collisions.

PS <i>Alpena</i> American steamship

The PS Alpena was a sidewheel steamer built by Thomas Arnold of Gallagher & Company at Marine City, Michigan in 1866. She was operated by the Goodrich Line after being purchased from Gardner, Ward & Gallagher in April 1868. The Alpena sank in Lake Michigan in the "Big Blow" storm on October 15, 1880, with the loss of all on board.

<i>Eureka</i> (ferryboat)

Eureka is a side-wheel paddle steamboat, built in 1890, which is now preserved at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in San Francisco, California. Originally named Ukiah to commemorate the railway's recent extension into the City of Ukiah, the boat was built by the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad Company at their Tiburon yard. Eureka has been designated a National Historic Landmark and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on April 24, 1973.

SS <i>Yarmouth Castle</i> American steamship lost in a disastrous fire

SS Yarmouth Castle, built as Evangeline, was an American steamship whose loss in a disastrous fire in 1965 prompted new laws regarding safety at sea.

New York, Providence and Boston Railroad New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad subsidiary

The New York, Providence and Boston Railroad, normally called the Stonington Line, was a major part of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad between New London, Connecticut and Providence, Rhode Island. It is now part of Amtrak's high-speed Northeast Corridor.

<i>Natchez</i> (boat)

Natchez has been the name of several steamboats, and four naval vessels, each named after the city of Natchez, Mississippi or the Natchez people. The current one has been in operation since 1975. The previous Natchez were all operated in the nineteenth century, most by Captain Thomas P. Leathers. Each of the steamboats since Leathers' first had as its ensign a cotton bale between its stacks.

<i>Bonnington</i> (sternwheeler)

Bonnington was a sternwheel steamboat that ran on the Arrow Lakes in British Columbia from 1911 to 1931. Bonnington and two sisterships were the largest sternwheelers ever built in British Columbia. Bonnington was partially dismantled in the 1950s, and later sank, making the vessel the largest freshwater wreck site in British Columbia.

Cottonclads were a classification of steam-powered warships where a wooden ship was protected from enemy fire by bales of cotton lining its sides. Cottonclads were prevalent during the American Civil War, particularly in the Confederate States Navy for riverine and coastal service such as in the battles of Memphis, Galveston, and Sabine Pass. Confederate tactics generally had cottonclads, which were outgunned by Union warships, steam at full speed towards enemy vessels, relying on the cotton to absorb fire. Once they were within firing range, they would open fire, and, if possible, ram or board the enemy.

Shipwrecks of the inland Columbia River

Steamboats on the Columbia River system were wrecked for many reasons, including striking rocks or logs ("snags"), fire, boiler explosion, or puncture or crushing by ice. Sometimes boats could be salvaged, and sometimes not.

<i>Rossland</i> (sternwheeler)

The Rossland was a sternwheel steamboat that ran on the Arrow Lakes in British Columbia. It was named after Rossland, British Columbia, once a prosperous mining town in the region.

Steamboats of the Mississippi Overview of the role of steamboats in the 19th-century development of the Mississippi River

Steamboats played a major role in the 19th-century development of the Mississippi River and its tributaries, allowing practical large-scale transport of passengers and freight both up- and down-river. Using steam power, riverboats were developed during that time which could navigate in shallow waters as well as upriver against strong currents. After the development of railroads, passenger traffic gradually switched to this faster form of transportation, but steamboats continued to serve Mississippi River commerce into the early 20th century. A small number of steamboats are still used for tourist excursions in the 21st century.

<i>Bristol</i> (1866 steamboat)

Bristol was a large sidewheel steamboat launched in 1866 by William H. Webb of New York for the Merchants Steamship Company. One of Narragansett Bay's so-called "floating palaces", the luxuriously outfitted Bristol and her sister ship Providence, each of which could carry up to 1,200 passengers, were installed with the largest engines then built in the United States, and were considered to be amongst the finest American-built vessels of their era.

PS <i>Commonwealth</i> (1854)

Commonwealth was a large sidewheel steamboat built in 1854–55 for passenger service on Long Island Sound. The most celebrated Sound steamer of her day, Commonwealth was especially noted for the elegance and comfort of her passenger accommodations, which included gas lighting, steam heating, and an "enchantingly beautiful" domed roof in her upper saloon. Her stability of motion led her captain to describe Commonwealth as the finest rough weather steamboat ever built in the United States.

The Eliza Battle was a Tombigbee River steamboat that ran a route between Columbus, Mississippi and Mobile, Alabama in the United States during the 1850s. She was destroyed in a fire on the river near modern Pennington, Alabama on March 1, 1858. It was the greatest maritime disaster in Tombigbee River history, with an estimated thirty-three people killed, out of roughly sixty passengers and a crew of forty-five. The disaster and its aftermath saw the Eliza Battle enter southwestern Alabama folklore as a ghost ship, with numerous purported sightings of the burning ship from just north of Pennington to Nanafalia downriver. The story of the disaster and associated folklore has been fictionalized in several published short stories, most notably in “The Phantom Steamboat of the Tombigbee” in 13 Alabama Ghosts and Jeffrey.

The SS Narragansett was a passenger paddle steamer of the Stonington Line that burned and sank on June 11, 1880, after a collision with her sister ship the SS Stonington in Long Island Sound.

<i>Tampomas II</i> Indonesian passenger ship that caught fire in 1981

KMP Tampomas II was a roll on-roll off car and passenger ferry owned by the Indonesian shipping company Pelni that burned and sank in the Java Sea while sailing from Jakarta to Ujung Pandang, South Sulawesi on January 27, 1981. This disaster resulted in the deaths of hundreds of passengers.

SS <i>Admiral Sampson</i> American-flagged cargo and passenger steamship

The SS Admiral Sampson was a U.S.-flagged cargo and passenger steamship that served three owners between 1898 and 1914, when it was rammed by a Canadian passenger liner and sank in Puget Sound. Following its sinking off Point No Point, the Admiral Sampson has become a notable scuba diving destination for advanced recreational divers certified to use rebreathing equipment.

<i>Walk-in-the-Water</i> (steamboat) American sidewheel steamboat

Walk-in-the-Water was a sidewheel steamboat that played a pioneering role in steamboat navigation on the Great Lakes. She was the first such craft to run on Lake Erie, Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Launched in 1818, she transported people and supplies to sites and points of interest around the Great Lakes, before being grounded and wrecked in a gale force storm in Buffalo's bay in 1821. According to some sources, Walk-in-the-Water's name originated from an Indian's impression of a steamboat moving ("walking") on the water with no sails.

<i>New York</i> (1836 steamboat) American steamboat built 1836

New York was an American passenger-cargo sidewheel steamboat built in 1836 for service on Long Island Sound. When new, she was the largest steamboat yet to operate on the route between New York and New Haven, Connecticut, and was one of the largest Sound steamboats of her day.


  1. R. K., Orrin; Dwomo-Anokye, Nyameye. "5 Epic Disasters at Sea (Survived by Un-killable Badasses)". Cracked.com . Retrieved 22 September 2014.
  2. Richards, Irving T. (1933). The Life and Works of John Neal (PhD). Harvard University. p. 938. OCLC   7588473.

Coordinates: 41°1′56″N73°7′21″W / 41.03222°N 73.12250°W / 41.03222; -73.12250