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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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.
The account also included the information that among the passengers
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
"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.
- 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.
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,
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.
Actually, the ship had caught fire on January 2, 1840; a small
box ignited and was quickly extinguished.
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.