Lexington Steamship Fire Becomes Worst Disaster: Only Four Survivors
Between Eaton’s Neck Lighthouse in New York, and Sheffield Island Light in Connecticut
During the 19th century many steamships crossed between ports all over the East coast, with little regard for the safety of their passengers. It would often take a tragic event or disaster to spawn public outcry for change in creating new safety regulations for the protection of American and foreign citizens. Many of these early regulations are still in effect today.
Although many maritime disasters in the 19th century occurred during stormy weather, or may have involved the collision of boats, disasters from fire were also prevalent. One of the worst steamship disasters in history occurred when the steamship Lexington caught fire with an estimated 150 persons aboard. The disaster caused the greatest loss of life at that time in the Long Island Sound. Safety precautions eventually were put in place years later as a result of this tragic incident, to insure future similar disasters are prevented in protecting passengers.
The Lexington was a wooden paddlewheel steamer, built in 1835, over 200 feet in length. She was considered to be one of the fastest steamers on the route from New York City to Boston. The Lexington was one of those paddle wheel steamers that came into existence at a time when the evolution of the steam engine was also shaping the railroad systems of the future. By 1840, most investors were more interested in expanding the railroad system rather than the steamer lines, possibly causing the lack of regulations regarding safety with the dangerous route for steamers from New York Harbor, to the route around Point Judith, heading near Providence, Rhode Island. To help with costs of operation, steamers like the Lexington not only were used to carry passengers, but also cargo from New York to Boston.
When she set sail on a cold day on January 13th, 1840, her Captain, Jake Vanderbilt, was ill at home, unable to make the trip, so veteran Captain George Child took command of the vessel loaded with passengers and a cargo of cotton bales. She set sail at about 4 p.m. from Manhattan, New York, bound for Stonington, Connecticut, The vessel was carrying about 150 passengers, and about 150 cotton bales, some of which were piled up near the smokestack. Each bale was about 4 feet long by 3 feet wide, and nearly a foot and a half thick.
By the time dinner was served, the temperature had plummeted to near zero and the wind was gusting. The Lexington was sailing under full steam, past Eaton’s Neck Lighthouse outside New York, at about 7:00 p.m., towards Sheffield Island. All of a sudden fire broke out near the single stack, setting the bales of cotton loaded nearby aflame. Although a fire fighting team was quickly dispatched, they failed to put out the fire. As the fire prevented the crew from shutting down the boilers, the Lexington was still cruising at full speed and out of control. As a result, when full lifeboats with panicking passengers were dispatched, they capsized as soon as they hit the water, throwing everyone into the freezing waves. Those passengers that survived from being burned to death, by jumping in the water instead, ended up perishing from exposure to the icy waters and drowning.
Chester Hilliard, a 24-year-old ship captain traveling as a passenger, heard the cry of “Fire!” and ran out on deck. He waited patiently for the unattended boilers to give out so the ship would slow down. He watched in horror as passengers jumped to their deaths in the icy waters or succumbed to the raging fires. He persuaded a few of the remaining passengers and crew to throw themselves overboard attaching themselves to the cotton bales which would serve as rafts, as most of the lifeboats were swamped or destroyed by fire. By 8 p.m., an hour after the fire had started, as he and some of the survivors floated helplessly in the icy waters atop the bales of cotton, they watched the center of the main deck collapse, killing everyone there. About 3 p.m., as Hilliard looked at his watch, he observed the remaining hulk of the ship sink below the surface, carrying all those remaining aboard to their deaths.
Before that terrible freezing night of January 13, 1840 was over, all but four of the estimated 143 passengers and crew aboard the Lexington had perished. The many that had perished would become victims of flames or icy water in Long Island Sound’s first and worst steamboat fire. Ironically, those four survivors owed their lives to the cargo of cotton bales that had fueled the fire but also served as makeshift rafts. At the time of the disaster only one copy of the passenger list was made. This original document sank with the Lexington, thus making it impossible to verify the total number lost in the disaster.
Although the Lexington’s fire disaster was spotted along the shore of Long Island and lower Connecticut by many mariners, most of the boats were blocked by low tide, ice, and rough seas hampering any rescue attempts to reach the burning steamboat.
Of the four survivors, three were rescued by the sloop Merchant with its master, Captain Meeker, by noon that following day. Those rescued included Captain Hilliard, the passenger on board the Lexington, Captain Stephen Manchester, pilot of the Lexington, and Charles Smith, fireman. All three were found frost bitten and exhausted from exposure.
The fourth survivor, second mate David Crowley, drifted for 43 hours on a bale of cotton, coming ashore nearly 50 miles to the east, at Baiting Hollow, Long Island. Crowley was able to dig into the center of the cotton bale to stay warm. He managed to stagger nearly a mile to the nearest house before collapsing. He later fully recovered and kept the bale as a souvenir until the Civil War, when he donated it to be used for Union uniforms.
The Lexington burned and sank with a horrific loss of life. An unsuccessful attempt in 1842 to raise the wreck only resulted in the ship being broken apart in pieces and sank back in 150 feet of water. Only a mass of melted silver coins was retrieved.
The inquest jury slammed the Lexington’s crew and its owners. They felt that better judgment regarding using the buckets to put out the fire, and better discipline on the crew to launch the lifeboats would have saved some of the unnecessary loss of life. The jury charged that the use of blowers was dangerous, and that passengers and flammable cotton bales were a truly poor combination of cargo. After the facts were presented, the jury also slammed the Captain and Pilot in disregarding the safety of the passengers in trying only to save themselves foremost. Even though the result of their findings were published and handed down for the need for more safety regulations, there were no new safety regulations imposed regarding passengers and flammable cargo until nearly 12 years later when the steamboat Henry Clay burned on the Hudson River.
Unfortunately many lives were senselessly taken away from the neglect of safety regulations, but these tragic incidents paved the way for improved conditions we all enjoy today. Safety precautions eventually were put in place years later as a result of this tragic incident, to insure future similar disasters are prevented in protecting passengers. It helps to remember those that have lost their lives, or have made personal sacrifices, so that we all may have a better life.
I wish you all a safe new year in 2016,