Tragedy off Eaton's Neck: STEAMBOAT LEXINGTON

By Gault, Owen | Sea Classics, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Tragedy off Eaton's Neck: STEAMBOAT LEXINGTON

Gault, Owen, Sea Classics

It was to have been a routine overnight trek for the fastest steamboat in service but fate stepped in and only four out of 143 survived the fire that sank the steamboat Lexington in what still is long Island Sound's worst sea disaster BY OWEN GAULT

Distinguished poet and Man of Letters Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, 33, had not slept well. He had spent the previous day negotiating with his Manhattan-based publisher regarding an upcoming collection of his poetry - including his latest popular effort "The Wreck of the Hesperus" - only to realize that the tediously long meetings made him miss the 4:00 pm sailing of the Boston night boat Lexington from its East River pier. Had he caught the side-wheeler, it would have returned him to Stonington, Connecticut, in time for him to catch the morning train to his quarters at Harvard University where he was to give a lecture the following afternoon.

Accepting former classmate and author Nathaniel Hawthorne's standing offer to bunk at his New York apartment anytime he had to stay overnight, the disappointed Longfellow was awakened from his restless sleep the following morning by the excited cry of Hawthorne's matronly housekeeper. "Mr. Longfellow, sir, something terrible had happened! Weren't you supposed to be on the steamboat Lexington yesterday?"

Sleepily sitting up as the housekeeper handed him the morning newspaper, the most famous poet in America stared in disbelief at the glaring headline: "134 DIE AS STEAMBOAT LEXINGTON BATCHES FIRE AND SINKS IN LONG ISLAND SOUND. ONLY FOUR SURVIVE!"

"Well, sir, you can thank the dear Lord you missed that sailing, or you'd probably be one of those poor drowned souls," she gasped in horror.

History didn't record Professor Longfellow's reaction to the tragedy that in all probability would have prematurely ended his brilliant literary career, but the man who had recently immortalized the sinking of the packet Hesperus in a classic burst of poetic tribute following the blizzard of 1839 must have been mortified that he had come so close to suffering a fate similar to the captain of the ill-fated Hesperus and his doomed daughter. Anxiously scanning the casualty list for anyone he might have known, Longfellow was shocked to learn that several prominent bankers, businessmen, and personalities were also lost on the Lexington, among them famed abolitionist and outspoken minister Karl Folien, the Martin Luther King of his day. Humorist and popular wit Al Finn had perished in the flames along with one of the steam line's own directors, Thaddeus Phelps. Dead too were two boat captains, M. Kimball and J. Foster, plus three members of the socially prominent Winslow family who were escorting the body of their deceased brother to Boston for burial. To someone with Professor Longfellow's sensitivities the loss of the Lexington was a profound catastrophe made all the more ironic by further events which soon proved the tragedy could have been easily avoided.


By 1830, dynamic entrepreneur and transportation tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt was well on his way to becoming the richest man in America with his steamboat, railroad, and real estate holdings. The Staten Island-born visionary was well into capitalizing on the industrial revolution that was reshaping the map of the United States and especially key cities such as Boston, Chicago, and New York. Eager to expand on his fast-growing transportation network of steamboat lines and railroads, Vanderbilt was especially eager to speed up service between Boston and New York. To accomplish his goal, Vanderilt envisioned a fast new steamboat boasting all of the latest advances in marine engineering. With that, Vanderbilt commissioned the design of the impressive new side- wheeler Lexington.

Construction began in September 1834 at the highly respected Bishop and Simonson shipyard in New York, New York. Like her sponsor and designer -"Commodore" Cornelius Vanderbilt - the steamer had auspicious breeding that reflected the state of an art that, while still in its infancy, had made remarkable strides in the few short decades since Robert Fulton had proved the feasibility of the steam boat. By 1830, remarkable advances had been made in the field of steam propulsion. While accidents and boiler explosions had plagued the first generation of side-wheelers, the rapid perfection of walking beam engines, boilers, fire boxes, and related plumbing had reached a degree of safety that made openocean and coastal steam travel ever more acceptable to a public thirsting for fast, comfortable modes of travel.

With Vanderbilt personally supervising her construction, it was ensured that only the finest grade of materials would be used throughout the steamer's construction. Seasoned white oak and yellow pine were employed in the box frame design of the hull and deck. The exceptional strength of the hull was derived from recently evolved plans for bridge construction using variations of the Warren and Pratt type of girder design to externally reinforce the wooden hull and its heavy machinery. Lexington was 120-ft long and 21-ft wide. Rated at 490-gross tons, her wood burning, verticalbeam engine was built by the wellknown West Point Foundry.; Regally stylish furnishings included teak railings, stairways, and paneling, and only the highest quality fixtures were used throughout.

Safety was keynote and considered in every aspect during the vessel's planning and construction. The single smokestack was encased throughout all decks. Combustible exposed materials were not used near the boilers and steam pipes. In addition, a drain pipe was fitted into the hull which allowed hot cinders from the boilers to pass into the water instead of onto the decks. An auxiliary fire engine was installed with easy to reach hoses and pumps. While the lifeboats could only carry half of the steamer's intended full complement of passengers, the boats more than met the requirements of the day. Three large lifeboats were placed near Lexington's stern and a 20-man life raft was located on the forward deck. In addition, there were life vests for more than 200 persons.


On 1 June 1834, the attractive new steamer began service as a day boat between New York, New York, and Providence, Rhode Island. Passengers enjoyed the fastest passage on Long Island Sound with top-notch first-class service and accommodations. Vanderbilt's attention to detail had paid off. In 1837, the very successful service was moved to Stonington, Connecticut, where Vanderbilt's newly acquired railroad provided service to Boston and other New England cities. The New Jersey Steamship Navigation and Transportation Company purchased the Lexington in December of 1838 for $60,000. At this point, the boilers were converted to burn the more efficient coal, and the interior was refurbished at a cost of $12,000. Increasing her speed substantially, the coalfired engines were force fed by fans, which in turn drove the side-wheeler even faster and hotter.


The hazy afternoon sun was beginning to set as the Lexington lay tied up at her usual New York mooring on that fateful 13 January 1840. A cold wind blew across the East River keeping the temperature hovering at zero degrees. Ice was beginning to form on the surface of the water. Nevertheless, stevedores still managed to profusely sweat as they stowed 160 bales of cotton under the promenade deck. No one in the crew seemed to notice that some of these bales were placed within a few feet of the smokestack casing despite the fact that a fire had occurred in the casing only a few days earlier. However, no one took the problem seriously once the necessary repairs were made. Sadly, this seemingly simple mistake would soon prove to be a disastrous oversight.

For that evening's Long Island Sound crossing, veteran sea captain George Child was filling in for the Lexington's regular master, Capt. Jacob Vanderbilt (Cornelius' brother), who was home sick with the flu. But Child enjoyed a sound reputation as a capable seafarer well respected by the crew of 35 experienced seamen.

Also, a number of other sea captains were boarding as well, on their way home to loved ones in New England. By early afternoon, passengers began arriving at the East river pier. The trip to Stonington cost them $1.00, but the fare was only 50 cents if passengers remained on the decks. However, with the freezing bite of January cold making their lungs raw, the temperatures were too cold for anyone to enjoy the view from the open decks. For those passengers traveling beyond the Stonington, Connecticut, destination, their journey would continue to Boston via train.

One of those who boarded early was armed bank courier Adolph Harden who carried $20,000 in silver coins and $50,000 in bank notes for the Merchants Bank of Boston. Most of the passengers were well-dressed males, businessmen for the most part commuting between New York and Boston. A few were women usually with toddlers in tow. After taking on 116 passengers, the ship departed her dock for the last time just after four o'clock in the afternoon.

As the vessel tooted its whistle to signal departure, breathless VIP passenger Henry Wadsworth Longfellow arrived at the dock in his horse-drawn carriage, but was too late to board the ill-fated vessel. Possibly, had Capt. Child recognized this distinguished passenger, he might have ordered the departing vessel to go back to the pier, but this was not the case as Child feared running late. Sadly disappointed, poet Longfellow could only wave his arms in utter frustration as the lumbering steamer continued to angle out into the ice-packed river.

With the 23-ft diameter paddlewheels thrashing the water as they propelled the vessel down the East River on its fateful last journey around Throgs Neck into Long Island Sound, a brisk north wind came up causing noticeable white caps as a setting sun glinted the water. Faced with running into a heavy sea, Child ordered additional coal thrown on the fire. Slowly, the Lexington began to pick up speed as she began her journey into the Sound and open sea. In her wake, the chilled Manhattan skyline slowly disappeared into the setting sun.

By six o'clock, the passengers were quietly enjoying dinner and drinks. Offered a choice of baked flounder in a tasty wine sauce or mutton with boiled tomatoes, the passengers settled in for a pleasant if chilly winter crossing of the Long Island Sound. At the tables, well modulated conversations examined the latest politics, news, gossip, and banking trends.With an overall mood of comfortable ambiance the result of a well-prepared dinner and blended aperitifs, the passengers relaxed to the rhythmic throb of the paddlewheels; little suspecting the abject calamity that was soon to engulf them.


Later, there was some disagreement about who had first spotted the fire. Generally, the first mate is given credit when at 7:30 he reported seeing flames shooting up from the aft section of the promenade deck. Looking out of the wheel house, the mate saw angry flames and smoke billowing from around the smokestack casing. Quickly notifying Capt. Child, the mate was ordered to steer the vessel south toward the north shore of Long Island in an effort to beach her. As he rang the alarm that sprang the fire fighting crew to action, Child pondered the choice of speeding to the shore and in so doing farming the fast-spreading fire, or slowing the vessel down to help keep the flames under control. Child's decision soon became a moot point for within seconds the mate frantically announced that the steering had become unresponsive, the fire having burned through the greased ropes which linked the steering mechanisms between the wheelhouse and twin rudders aft. On top ofthat, the situation fast became more desperate when the captain was told the engine room had to be evacuated as the engineers choked on thick clouds of smoke. Blinded and fast being asphyxiated, the engineers evacuated the engine room before engines running at top speed could be slowed down. Soon, the intruding inferno left no way to reach the flame-whipped throttles.

Now totally out of control, Lexington turned east toward Eaton's Neck on its own, as if trying to out run the searing intensity of the flames. With her steam engine running wide open, the fire quickly engulfed the entire aft section of the ship causing great pandemonium among crewmen and passengers alike. People lay flat on the deck to avoid the scorching flames only to discover the deck itself glow red hot and begin smoking beneath their feet. Down below in the engine spaces, the last crew members attempting to reach the white-hot throttles were forced out by the flames before the engines could be shutdown.


To Capt. Child's consternation, the fire fighting crew was unable to get their equipment properly deployed because of the firemen's confusion over the operation of the system's various valves, manifolds, and pumps. By the time the first water began to spurt from the hoses, the entire apparatus had been inundated by the fire and rendered useless. With a state of near panic and chaos fast overtaking everyone, any hope of stopping the fire was lost. Adding to the confusion, no one could find more than 20 or so life preservers. In desperation, a bucket brigade was so hastily organized that the Merchants Bank courier allowed the bank's silver coins to be dumped onto the deck so the wooden box which held them could be used in the bucket brigade. But this futile procession was another gesture that was too little too late and the attempt was abandoned.

Within minutes, the windwhipped flames were now as high as the smokestack and could easily be seen from the Connecticut and Long Island shoreline. Several small boats in the shoreline marinas attempted to help effect a rescue as men, women, and children were seen to jump overboard, their clothes on fire as they screamed to God for help. But the ice, low tide, and rough seas blocked any attempt to reach the burning steamboat. Realizing they all were doomed, Capt. Child ordered the launching of the lifeboats as the scene on the decks became one of total terror and panic. Frenzied passengers stormed one of the lifeboats as the crew was preparing the boat for launching, filling it far beyond its capacity. Recklessly launched, the boat was smashed to smithereens by the still revolving paddlewheel, everyone in it quickly swept away and drowned in the freezing waters. A second boat was quickly launched, but it too was impossibly overloaded and immediately capsized in the boiling wake of the paddlewheels. The same fate was met by the third boat, hurriedly launched with the steamer still moving so fast its deadly wake swamped the boat and threw everyone in it into the sea.


Gradually, the Lexington was losing speed as no one remained to stoke her boilers. With that, some of the more survival-minded occupants began to throw cotton bales over the side to use as rafts. Nevertheless, the insidious speed of the flames had won, consuming everything including the life raft in their path. By midnight, the steamship was charred black from bow to stern. Major portions of its deck and upper works had collapsed into the flaming hull. By three o'clock the following morning, the Lexington had vanished from sight, slowly sinking into the mud of Long Island Sound not far from the coastal community of Bridgeport.

In the end, only four people would survive. All but one of the survivors was badly frostbitten. The Second Mate, David Crowley, 34, was able to dig into the center of a cotton bale to stay warm. Dehydrated and suffering from exposure, he floated for 48-hrs until he washed ashore 50-mi away at Baiting Hollow, Long Island. Recovering from his ordeal, Crowley kept the bale as his personal life-saving memento in his Providence, Rhode Island, home for years until he sold it for the Civil War effort.

Chester Hilliard, 28, was one of the professional sea captains aboard. Captain Hilliard was en route to his home in Norwich, Connecticutt, and the only passenger to survive. Like Crowley, he had clung to a cotton bale until rescued by the sloop Dennis Melville. Saved by the sloop Merchant, which also braved the freezing seas to attempt rescues, was the Lexington's pilot, Stephen Manchester, 36, the last one to leave the stricken steamer. But the Merchant had good fishing of a humane type that tragic morning. Shortly after 2:00 pm, a lookout spotted one the paddle- wheeler's firemen, Charles Smith, 22, clinging to a broken part of the paddle. Four others with Smith had died from exposure during that fateful night, but he miraculously survived, and despite his ordeal, managed to live to a ripe old age.

A tragedy of this magnitude made headlines for weeks as a Court of Inquiry was hastily convened to try to discover the cause of the accident. After hearing the testimony of the surviving crewmen the court reached several conclusions. First, it noted that the Lexington had recently been fined for not having wires connecting its steering mechanism to the rudder. Next, the court criticized the lack of sufficient training of many crewmen, especially the fire fighters. Then it questioned why passengers reportedly could only find 20 life preservers. Also questioned was the time delay in ordering the fire fought and the engines stopped, but with Capt. Childs among the deceased, the cause of these charges could only be speculated. Of most importance was the Court's finding that the real cause of the fire had been the switch from wood- to coal-burning boilers. Coal produced more heat, burning as it does at a much higher temperature which caused fire to break out in engine casings that had not been reinforced or altered to accommodate the additional heat. Although fire was the tragedy's cause, had the fire fighting effort been more effective, the conflagration could easily have been extinguished after it was discovered.

On 20 September 1842, the charred remains of the Lexington were lifted by heavy chains to the surface in a major salvage attempt. However the fire-weakened hull promptly broke up into three pieces and again sank in 130-ft of water. Before it broke apart, salvagers found and removed a 30-lb melted mass of the bank's silver from inside the hull. Bank courier Harden was one of the fire's victims so he could not testify what had happened to the bank notes and other coins, which were never found.

Today, Lexington's wreckage is a popular scuba diving destination for experienced wreck divers. The remains lay broken up across the bottom in anywhere from 80- to 140ft of water. The wreck is covered in wire debris from the salvage operation, lost fishing nets and other dangerous wreckage. The bottom is very dark, cold, and extremely hazardous.

To this day the sinking of the Lexington remains Long Island's worst sea tragedy - one that need not have happened at all if reaction to the first sighting of flames was more prompt.

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Tragedy off Eaton's Neck: STEAMBOAT LEXINGTON


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