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The Lexington Tragedy

One Night in 1840

On the night of January 13, 1840, the 488-ton steamer Lexington was en route from New York City to Stonington, Connecticut, with about 160 people aboard and a cargo of about 150 bales of cotton. She caught fire at sea in sub-zero weather, and in the ensuing tragedy all but four people died.1

Still at the bottom of Long Island Sound among the wreckage may be $18,000 worth of silver and gold coins. This particular ship disaster launched Nathaniel Currier into the Pantheon of American iconography. The man who was later a partner with James Merritt Ives in Currier & Ives published a hand-colored print of the disaster, titled Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat LEXINGTON In Long Island Sound on Monday Evening, January 13th 1840, by which melancholy occurrence, over 100 PERSONS PERISHED. In an era in which most newspaper accounts were not illustrated with black and white engravings, let alone color, the print with its dramatic perspective of raging flames and smoke reaching high into the sky was a sellout, and it had to be reprinted several times.2

A Contemporary Account

The following account is adapted and paraphrased from the original 1840 Extra Sun story as published by Currier; John H. Morrison's History of American Steam Navigation, 1903; and testimony given before the Twenty-Sixth Congress:

The steamer Lexington left its pier on Manhattan's East River for Stonington after 3:00 o'clock, possibly as late as 4:00, on Monday afternoon, January 13, 1840, with eager passengers who looked forward to arriving at their destination early the following morning.

About half past seven o'clock, when the ship was about 50 miles out of the port of New York City and four miles off Eaton's Neck, on the north shore of Long Island, the woodwork and casings about her smokestack were discovered to be on fire. Pilot Stephen Manchester, who was at the helm, later related:

"My first movement was to step out of the wheel-house and look aft. I saw the upper deck on fire all around the smoke-pipe and blazing up two or three feet, perhaps, above the promenade deck. The flame seemed to be a thin sheet and, apparently, but just commenced; the blaze seemed to follow up the smoke-pipe and was all around it.' I thought from my first view that it was a doubtful case whether it could be extinguished.'"

Captain George Childs, who had been below deck, came into the wheel-house and placed his hand on the wheel, at which time the drive-rope gave way. Smoke was so intense that the post had to be abandoned.

An alarm was immediately given, and a small hand-pumped fire engine was brought out, but only two or three buckets could be located, although there were supposed to be several dozen aboard. It was soon found that fighting the fire was futile as the flames roared toward the sky. With much effort the Lexington was directed at full speed toward the Long Island shore in the hope of beaching her, but two miles away from land her engine stopped and she was dead in the water.

Manchester testified: "In my opinion, the fire originated from the heat of the smoke-pipe, which was communicated to the woodwork. I have frequently seen the smoke-pipe red hot, and so it was on the last night. I do not know whether the red heat extended to the flange or not. The cotton was piled within perhaps a foot of the steam chimney."

The Lexington had recently converted from wood to burn coal in her boiler, and there were still problems to be worked out. Coal burned with a much more intense heat. There had been trouble with the new fuel on a recent trip, and she had been laid up for repairs to the two 36-inch blowers, powered from a shaft on the main engine, that forced a draft in the fire box. The engine, built by the West Point Foundry, had a 48-inch cylinder that operated with an 11-foot stroke.

Shortly after the fire was discovered, the single lifeboat and two smaller boats were made ready, but the lifeboat was smashed when it came into contact with one of the paddlewheels (of which there were two, each 23 feet in diameter). As if that was not enough, according to later testimony the small boats were swamped by mismanagement in lowering them into the water crowded with passengers. One of the small boats was filled with about 20 passengers and then lowered toward the sea, when someone cut the forward tackle, making her go into the water stern-first and flooding the interior. Essentially the same thing happened to the second small boat. Meanwhile, the sea temperature was about at the freezing point and the air remained below zero, hardly conducive for unprotected survival even under the best of circumstances.

Captain Childs rigged a small raft from a spar and flagstaff with a portion of the bulwarks; also throwing overboard four baggage cars after being emptied of their contents, with a line attached. Some of the cotton cargo was pitched into the water as well. The flames increased their intensity, and before long there was no place of safety remaining on the ship. The Lexington remained afire until about 3:00 a.m., when the largely burned-out hulk slipped beneath the waves, apparently carrying with it the bodies of passengers who had preferred death by fire to death by freezing.

For the passengers who had jumped overboard, their only hope for being saved was to cling to floating cotton bales or other objects, but none of them succeeded except a passenger (known as Captain Chester Hilliard or Hillard), Stephen Manchester (the pilot), Charles Smith (one of the firemen), and a passenger who had been picked up and taken to River Head, and who was so far gone as not to be able to disclose his name. It was believed, however, that he would survive. This last-mentioned passenger was David Crowley, who was later identified as the second mate.

Captain Hilliard first went to the improvised raft, then moved to a bale of cotton, to which he clung until 11:00 a.m. on Tuesday when, after having been in the water about 15 hours, he was taken off by the sloop Merchant, under Captain Meeker, which went out from Southport. The Merchant had jettisoned some of its cargo to permit it to be in shallow water during the rescue. The same sloop saved two more passengers who were clinging to a fragment of the boat. The bodies of two others were likewise taken from the wreck where they had perished from cold.

Another vessel, the steamer Statesman, on Thursday picked up one body and 13 luggage trunks. The bodies of Cortland Hempstead (the chief engineer) and Sands (the head waiter in the ship's dining room) were also recovered.

The Extra Sun commented: "The number of passengers on board is not known with any degree of certainty. It is most probable, however, that they numbered about 80-- of whom but two were rescued alive. The boat's crew numbered 30 of whom also two were saved.

"Among the passengers were the wife and two interesting children of Russell Jarvis, Esquire, formerly of Boston, more lately editor of the Philadelphia World, and at present, editor of the Evening Tattler in this city [New York]. Captain Hilliard, whose penchant had been attracted to this interesting and charming family at their table, saw Mrs. Jarvis was clinging with one of her children in her arms on a bale of cotton. The other child had leapt overboard, as had also a great many other passengers-- some 20 of whom had life preservers on. When observed by Captain Hilliard, Mrs. Jarvis was frantically calling upon the persons in the water to preserve her child and bring it to her on the bale. Mother, children, passengers and all, however, sunk to a common grave.

"The steamboat Statesman on Friday repaired to the scene of the disaster, and returned on Saturday, bringing five bodies, one of which was that of Mr. Stephen Waterbury of this city, and another of Mr. Philo Upson of South Egremont, Massachusetts, two others, those of Benjamin Leadden and Silas Thorborn, hands on board the steamer, and the fifth that day, a boy of five years of age. [All bodies recovered were frozen stiff, partially covered with ice, and many with charring marks from the fire aboard.]

"On Friday night Captain Comstock dispatched a letter to the city, in which he says that: ÔCaptain William Terrill, master of the sloop Improvement, was, with his vessel, within four or five miles of the Lexington at the time she commenced burning, and thinks if he had immediately repaired to her assistance, he could have saved a great number of lives. The reason he gives for not doing so is, that he would have lost his tide over the bar, at the port to which he was bound, and accordingly he pursued his inhuman course, leaving upwards of 100 persons to die the worst of deaths.3 The circumstances of this unparalleled cruelty will hereafter be more clearly exposed, and I trust he will receive his merited deserts.' This conduct of Captain Terrill has elicited a universal burst of indignation against him in this city, and for his safety's sake we advise him not to venture too much in public here.

"Besides the bodies, the Statesman brought 30 pieces of luggage and the life boat of the Lexington but little injured. We understand that a great number of the trunks, etc., which had floated to shore, have been broken open and rifled, and that the trunk of the Reverend Doctor Follen was found in the woods, some distance from the shore, rifled of everything but papers.

"The head cook was Joseph Robinson whose name was reported among the lost but as it turned out was not on board because he was detained at his home by sickness. His place was supplied by the second cook, Howell, and Isaac Putnam (colored) supplied the place of Howell."

Why Did It Happen?

Hearings were held to determine the circumstances of the ship's demise. Testimony related:

The boat was built as a wood-fired steamer by Bishop & Simonson, New York, for Cornelius Vanderbilt in the latter part of 1834 and beginning of 1835 of the best possible materials and bolted and fastened together and secured in the strongest possible manner without regard to cost or expenses.

"She was 205 feet long on deck from stem to stern, 22 feet wide and 40 feet across the wheelhouses from side to side. She was launched in April 1835 and her first trip was in June of 1835. Her timbers were part oak and part chestnut, with planks of oak as far as the waist and then of pine. About two months before the accident she was repaired in drydock and some new copper and other fittings were put in. Vanderbilt owned her until 1838 and then sold her to the Providence and Rhode Island Steamboat and Transportation Company.

"The ship was the only boat that had navigated Long Island Sound for four or five years and never stopped because of weather or lost a trip.' Instructions to the captain were never to stop while they could see to go ahead, he had so much confidence in her strength.

"The Lexington was first built to burn wood and then converted to burn anthracite coal when the ownership changed. No reference as to whether the boat had ever caught fire from sparks, but such minor fires were common incidents."4

"Captain Hilliard said that when he came out of the cabin and saw the fire he thought three buckets of water would have put it out. Instead of doing that, the crew went to check the engine, and the fire got ahead. Hilliard said that there were two to four dozen buckets on board. Hilliard went to the pilot room and told the pilot that the boat was on fire. The pilot said he knew it, and was steering for shore."

"It was said that the boiler was in the center, and the woodwork came within an inch of the chimney. There was a space of eight inches filled with steam around the chimney. The fire could have originated from a spark below. There could have been a little hemp in some of the woodwork in which a spark might have fallen. However, in boats built for burning wood there is no more danger than boats built for burning coal. The smoke pipe is surrounded by a case filled with steam eight inches wide and above her the promenade deck and into the hold. Under the boiler is 18 inches of brick and then a layer of cast iron plates filled with water and that covered with sheet iron. Hilliard stated that changing from wood to coal didn't make it any more dangerous."

In the hearing, Captain William Comstock was examined. He lived at 2234 East Broadway, 53 years old, general agent and superintendent of the New Jersey Steam Transportation Company, formerly called the Boston and New York Transportation Company, charter obtained from the New Jersey Legislature last year. The company had five boats on the line called the Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Narragansett, Providence and Michigan. They run from New York to Stonington to Providence.

Comstock related that Robert Schuyler, then president of the company, purchased the Lexington from Vanderbilt for $60,0005, and with additional expenses it cost $70,000 [or $72,000] before her first trip for our company. Further: "I can't say whether or not that money was to induce Captain Vanderbilt to take his boat off that station, such a boat as the Lexington is worth $60,000." She had not been running in opposition to us at the time she sunk, but when first she came on the line she ran in opposition to us.'"

Comstock testified that the ship burned about 10 to 13 tons of anthracite coal going from New York to Stonington and then from two to three cords of wood. She ran on about eight to 13 inches of steam and could go 12 to 14 miles an hour. Goods were carefully stowed. "You never saw any goods stowed nearer than three or four feet of the casing of the steam chimney, although no danger would be found if it was stowed against the steam chimney." The Lexington had two quarter boats about 22 feet long both in excellent order plus a lifeboat at least 21 feet long capable of saving 40 people, although the builder said 60. The boats were hanging on the quarter. The lifeboat was forward near the wheel house on the promenade deck which was covered with painted canvas.

Treasure Aboard

The account also included the information that among the passengers was:

Adolphus S. Harnden of the Boston and New York Express Package Car Office, having with him about $18,000 in specie [coins], and $70,000 or $80,000 for brokers in eastern money.

The $18,000 in specie would have consisted of silver and/or gold coins. "Eastern money" probably refers to private paper money of Eastern banks. While coins would have held up to immersion in the water of Long Island Sound for years thereafter, the paper money would have deteriorated quickly. Stephen Manchester testified that Harnden was trapped on the forward deck by the flames and was one of the last to remain aboard the ship.

The January 1840 Extra Sun, published by Nathaniel Currier, also mentioned the coins in its account of the disaster published soon after it happened:

"Captain Manchester, the pilot, is now at Southport and is slowly recovering. He states that he remained at the wheel until he was actually burnt out. He descended, and got into the air-deck with Mr. Harnden of the Express Line, Mr. Hoyt, baggage master, and two or three others. They succeeded in getting out the lifeboat and lowered it into the water and throw his pea jacket into it.

"Unfortunately at this time the painter [rope attached to the prow] gave way and the lifeboat was sucked under the wheel thus depriving those who looked for safety in this boat of all hope. Flames now advanced rapidly to the aft part, and to prevent its progress, the pilot and others broke open some specie boxes [filled with coins], and emptied them of the worthless dross, used the boxes [as fire buckets] to keep off the flames and prevent their progress.

"Finding this in vain, Captain Manchester, taking his clasp knife from his pocket, jumped overboard to a cotton bale he saw near the vessel. Endeavoring to get on it, he found another man already sustaining himself on it. In his attempt to get on both fell into the water. Captain Manchester rose, and supported the man until he could get on. Then using his knife, he cut holes in the bale by which he supported himself. Captain Manchester's companion died in the course of the night. The pilot was picked up on the bale as has been stated.'"

One can imagine that the sea bed of Long Island Sound once was littered with gleaming silver half dollars, sparkling gold coins of the 1830s, and other items.

So far as the author knows, none of these coins have ever been recovered from Long Island Sound. By now, any silver coins would probably be mostly dissolved by action of the salt water, but gold coins would still be intact, although with seawater etching.

Indeed, the long-ago events of January 13, 1840, have been forgotten by just about everyone.

  1. William M. Lytle, Merchant Steam Vessels of the United States 1807-1868. Passenger accounts and other information in S.A. Howland, Steamboat Disasters and Railroad Accidents in the United States, 1840, are the basis for several later stories of the wreck.
  2. Engraving drawn on stone by William K. Hewitt. Published by N. Currier, 2 Spruce Street, New York. Many copies were printed as extras to the New York Sun. Four different versions of the print are known to collectors today and are described in Currier & Ives: A Catalogue RaisonnŽ, Gale Research Co., 1984, p. 35.
  3. Italics per the original account. Captain Terrill was counting on high tide to carry his ship over a sand bar, otherwise he would have had to wait until the next high tide.
  4. Actually, the ship had caught fire on January 2, 1840; a small box ignited and was quickly extinguished.
  5. It was Vanderbilt's practice to extract tribute from his competitors to induce him to stay away from a route or to keep rates high. Vanderbilt also did this years later in the 1850s in connection with ship service from New York City to San Francisco with an overland crossing in Central America. The Lexington was Vanderbilt's first large-scale venture into Long Island Sound freight and passenger traffic, although he had operated the Nimrod from New York to Bridgeport for a short time.
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