Wood was used for centuries to build ships, the power to drive them was cloth. Wood and cloth worked well
together and was a safe way to propel a vessel, this however limited the size and most importantly the
speed and reliability of such vessels. The great passenger liners were born of the need for speed and
reliability, mainly for delivering the mail. The power to drive them was introduced into ships in the early
1800's, it was steam. Without fire there is no steam, and fire and wood are a dangerous combination, throw in
cotton, passengers and panic and you have the makings for a disaster. In 1834
Cornelius Vanderbilt ordered a
new steamship from
Bishop and Simonson in New York, she would be built of the finest materials, under his personal direction, her name was Lexington.
A sidewheeler used daily for the New York and
Providence, Rhode Island run, she was the fastest ship on the
Long Island sound by all accounts. Her engine was built by the West Point Foundry, her 23' paddlewheels were
driven by a vertical-beam engine which used wood to fire the boiler. Vanderbilt took safety into account by
enclosing the funnel throughout all decks and a pipe was fitted to the hull which sent cinders from the boiler directly into the water, keeping them from falling on to the deck. There were also fire hoses powered by an
engine installed on the ship. Lifeboats were another matter, only three were carried, all on the stern. An
additional liferaft was carried on the forward deck. These could carry only half of those on board but was within
the requirements of the day, a deadly lesson not yet learned.
She stayed on the the New York to Rhode Island route until 1837 when her destination was moved to
Stonington, Connecticut. In December of 1838 she was bought by the
New Jersey Steamship Navigation and Transportation Company. They overhauled the Lexington updating her interior and altering her propulsion system. They converted her wood fired boiler to coal and added blowers to force feed the flames, this increased her speed but caused a hotter burn. One of the items not replaced during the refit were the tiller ropes, wires should have been installed and her owners would even be fined for this later, but the Lexington continued to sail.
Some reports state the ship had been condemned in late 1839 as unseaworthy, a report I have not been able
to confirm. Another report says that on Friday January 10, 1840 she caught fire "and the passengers never
expected to reach New York alive". They did but they were among the last.
On Monday January 13, 1840 the Lexington, with 143 passengers and crew on board, departed New York for
Stonington, Connecticut, on board were also 150 bails of cotton. They were stacked up on the decks and around
the funnel casing. A spark from the funnel set one of them on fire and at 7:30pm the fire was seen by the first
mate. The fire spread rapidly and soon burned through the tiller ropes, the Lexington was now out of control.
The crew were untrained and apparently did not know how to operate the fire pump dooming the ship.
The next ingredient for a disaster is panic, and panic there was. Captain George Child had now lost control of
his burning ship, what was worse is that she was running at full power with no way to shut down the engine
(the engine room filled with smoke and was abandoned by the crew). He could not get her to shore and ground
her so he ordered the boats to be lowered. This caused a panic as passengers rushed the boats filling them well
over capacity. As they were lowered into the freezing water the forward motion of the ship caused them to dip
into the water fill and sink, sending their occupants into the water. The liferaft carried forward suffered the
Suddenly the engines stopped and the Lexington sat in the Long Island Sound and burned. All the boats gone
the only thing they had left was the cotton, this they threw overboard in hope of using it as a raft. The scene
on board was awful, people were gathered on the stern crying and screaming as the flames approached, the
only choice was to jump and so they did, men, women and children alike jumped into the water to avoid the
flames only to die from the cold. At 3am the following morning the Lexington sank, debris, bails of cotton and
floating bodies were the only evidence of the disaster.
A quote from the paper says it all "Fire, water! Frost and
cold! Oh God! oh God! Can human imagination picture a death more horrible!"
The sloop Merchant attempted to reach the burning ship but grounded on the bar and could not get free for some
hours, by then the Lexington was gone and all but four people were dead. The Merchant picked up three of
Chester Hilliard (a passenger),
Stephen Manchester (the ship's pilot) and
Charles Smith (one of
the firemen). The last survivor Second Mate
David Crowley dug out one of the bails of cotton and climbed inside,
he stayed in there until he came ashore 50 miles east of the sinking at
Baiting Hollow, Long Island
later. A report in the Boston Post June 10, 1840 said there was a rumor that a survivor from the Lexington
had been picked up five days later by an unidentified ship, that he had been taken to a foreign port and had now
returned. The story also said he was unable to speak for 20 days after being plucked from the water but had
now made a full recovery. His name was Mr. Blake and he was supposed to have been a bank employee, the
rumor was not true.
The famed poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow is supposed to have been listed as a passenger on the manifest
of the Lexington but was for some reason or another delayed and was not on board, however in a strange
twist of fate
his most famous poem,
The Wreck of the Hesperus, was published for the first time the following
day in a publication called The New World.
Even in the aftermath of the disaster commerce continues, some locals had gathered up some of the bails of
cotton found floating near the scene and had them made into Lexington shirts, selling them to the public. The
disaster even launched a career for one man. The New York Sun ran a special edition on the disaster and as
newspapers of the day lacked photographs an artist was needed to create the image.
Nathaniel Currier was
commissioned to do the work and soon after this his works were used weekly in the Sun.