Lexington Steamship Fire Becomes Worst Disaster:
Only Four Survivors
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. Commissioned by prominent industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, the ship was considered one of the most luxurious steamers in operation. She was also 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.
Tragedy Occurred Between Sheffield Island Lighthouse in Connecticut, and Eaton’s Neck Light in New York
When the Lexington 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 Lighthouse. All of a sudden, fire broke out near the single stack, setting the bales of cotton that were 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. The first boat was sucked into the paddle wheel, killing its occupants. Captain Child had fallen into the lifeboat and was among those killed. The ropes used to lower the other two boats were cut incorrectly, causing the boats to hit the water stern-first, sinking immediately. Those passengers that had survived from being burned to death, tried jumping in the water instead, and ended up perishing from exposure to the icy waters and drowning.
Pilot Stephen Manchester turned the ship toward the shore in hopes of beaching the flaming vessel. However, the drive-rope that controlled the rudder quickly burned through, and the engine stopped a few miles from the New York shore. With the ship out of control, it drifted northeast and away from the land, towards Sheffield Island in Connecticut.
Chester Hilliard, a 24-year-old ship captain traveling as a passenger, heard the cry of “Fire!” and ran out on deck. He watched in horror as passengers jumped to their deaths in the icy waters or succumbed to the raging flames. He waited patiently for the unattended boilers to give out so the ship would finally begin to slow down about an hour later. By 8 p.m., as the ship started drifting, 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. Many survivors were too frightened to jump into the freezing waters and stayed on board. As Hilliard 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 a.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. There was however one ship within a few miles of the area that witnessed the Lexington burning, the sloop Improvement, but the captain decided not to attempt any rescue.
The Four Survivors
Of the four survivors, three were rescued by the sloop Merchant with its master, Captain Meeker, by noon that following day. Those rescued included Chester Hilliard, who was a 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.
Stephen Manchester, the ship’s pilot, along with about 30 others huddled near the bow of the ship until around midnight, when he with several passengers tried to step onto a makeshift raft, which immediately sank. He then climbed onto a floating bale of cotton with a passenger named Peter McKenna. Three hours later however, McKenna died of exposure.
Charles Smith, who was one of the ship’s firemen, descended down the stern of the ship and clung to the ship’s rudder along with four other people. Exhausted and freezing, the five jumped into the churning sea just before the ship sank around 3:00 a.m., and climbed onto a floating piece of the paddlewheel. The other four men that were with Smith died of exposure hours later.
Chester Hilliard, the only passenger to survive, had helped crew members throw bales of cotton to people in the water. He climbed onto the last bale at 8:00 p.m., along with ship’s fireman Benjamin Cox. About eight hours later, Cox, weak from hypothermia, slipped off the bale and drowned in the freezing waters.
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.
Aftermath: The Inquest Jury Blames the Lexington‘s Crew and Owners
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 inquest jury found a fatal flaw in the ship’s design to be the primary cause of the fire. It was noted that the ship’s boilers were originally built to burn wood, but were converted to burn coal in 1839. However, this conversion had not been properly completed. Statements were made that not only did coal burn hotter than wood, but additional amounts of coal were being burned on the night of the fire because of the storm and rough seas. 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.
It was found that as the Lexington was burning and could be seen for miles, the sloop Improvement, was less than five miles away, and never came to the Lexington’s aid. Captain William Tirrell of the Improvement explained that he saw the burning ship, but he was running on a schedule and didn’t want to miss the high tide. Following his statements there was a public outcry in the press, as lives could have been saved.
The Lexington burned for eight hours before it finally 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 weighing about 30 pounds. Many still believe there is gold and silver in her hull, which has never been recovered.
Unfortunately many lives were senselessly taken away due to 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.
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Exploring Sheffield Island lighthouse
The Norwalk Seaport Association provides shuttle service to Sheffield Island to tour the lighthouse and for picnicking on the grounds during the summer months. There are also festivals scheduled and clambakes. In Norwalk, there are plenty of museums, art exhibits, and events for visitors to explore.
Here are some of my favorite photos of Sheffield Island lighthouse.
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You’ll find this story, along with many famous stories of shipwrecks and rescues in my book, New England Lighthouses: Famous Shipwrecks, Rescues and Other Tales. The book also contains, along with my photographs, vintage images provided by the Coast Guard and various organizations, and paintings by six famous artists of the Coast Guard.
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