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. …

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