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In Our Waters - The Other Lexington

July 2, 2019

The young Harvard University student had little time to waste. He pulled the last page of his completed thesis from the typewriter and placed it hurriedly along with the other pages of his academic achievement

on the corner of his text-book covered desk. He spun around in his room, grabbed his school bag then turned around again, grabbed the thesis, and slid the tome in amongst a few text books and other papers in the bag. The blaring horn of his father’s Desoto yelped as if a wounded dog through the late afternoon air.  “Your father wants to go,” he heard his mother call out from the bottom of the stairs. “Coming,” he replied. “I will be down in one minute.” He scanned the room for his jacket and found it crumpled at the base of his bed. “Coming now,” he replied as he pulled on the jacket and grabbed his school bag. “One minute.”
“Have a safe trip dear,” his mother offered softly as she kissed him on the cheek. “Now don’t keep your father waiting. You know how impatient he gets.” He smiled. “Yes,” he offered in reply. “I certainly do.” He turned and raced out to his father and the warmed up Desoto. “Finish up your thesis?” his father inquired as he got into the front seat of the sedan. “Yes,” he replied. “I am so glad it is done.” “Well,” his father cleared his throat as he shifted the car into reverse, “if you hadn’t hung out so much with your friends over the break….” “I know Dad,” the young man offered. “I know your right but most importantly, it is done.”
Within an hour, the young Harvard University student was back amongst his fellow collegians in the waiting room at Pier 11. Within twelve or so hours, the college students would be back at their Ivy League bastions of academia and returning to their educational pursuits. The men caroused and cajoled about their experiences over the long winter’s break. Few were looking forward to returning to their studies but all knew that all good things must come to an end. At half past five o’clock, the ticket agents began boarding for the Providence, Rhode Island bound steamer. The Lexington had a scheduled departure time of six o’clock. Standing on the bridge, Captain William Pendleton looked at his pocket watch. He was a man who wanted to ensure a timely departure from the dock. As he stepped on to the bridge, he turned and walked over to Harris Angell, the pilot. “Happy New Year,” Captain Pendleton offered as he outstretched his hand. “Happy New Year to you as well Captain Pendleton. Ready when you are to get you and your passengers on your way.” The captain smiled. “Excellent. We do have a schedule to keep you know. The Lexington has a tradition to uphold.”
The steamer Lexington had been built by Harlan and Hollingsworth in Wilmington, Delaware in 1890 and was christened under the name Washington. At two hundred and forty-six feet in length, with a beam of forty-six feet and a draft of fifteen feet, five inches, the vessel had been plying local waters for over forty-years. Her normal route of the Colonial Line was between Pier 11 on the North River and Providence Rhode Island, via the East River, Long Island Sound and into Narragansett Bay. The weather on January 2, 1935 was brisk and the waters were chilled. With a crew of fifty-five officers and crew, the approximate tally on passengers was one hundred and twenty-six. A few moments after six o’clock, Pilot Angell began maneuvering the Lexington free from the pier. As the officers and mates conducted their duties, the passengers – a mixed lot of returning college students, families, friends, and business men, found refuge from the cold and chilly air in the various saloons and dining rooms aboard the steamer. The young college student from Harvard had joined into a game of cribbage with some acquaintances from his college and a few other collegians from Brown. With twelve hours of freedom left, a game of sport was a great way to pass the time. His thesis done, he reflected, was safely stowed in his school bag.
The Lexington began her voyage up the East River and as she was approaching the Manhattan Bridge, Captain Pendleton and Pilot Angell spotted the lights of a southbound vessel. Though the Lexington should have been further to the starboard on his northbound voyage, the steamer had to adjust her course due to a tow ahead. Maneuvering through the bustling waterway was part and parcel to good seamanship. As long as everyone on the various bridges of the myriad vessels observed the nautical rules of the road, there should not be any issue. Captain Pendleton and Pilot Angell listened for a signal from the south bound vessel. There was nothing. Captain Pendleton offered a passing signal. The signal came unanswered.
Meanwhile, on the bridge of the southbound vessel, pilot Walter S. Mitchell and Captain Wickman spotted the starboard light of the northbound vessel off his port bow. Pilot Mitchell ordered a single blast of the ship’s horn indicating that his intention was to remain on course and pass the steamer on his own vessel’s port side. Pilot Mitchell and Captain Wickman waited anxiously for a reply. The Jane Christenson’s engines were still operating at full speed. There was still no response from the northbound steamer. Captain Wickman scanned the scene. He anxiously tapped his fingers against the wooden casement of the bridge windows. He preferred the open sea lanes and not the busy water ways of New York City. Suddenly, two shrill blasts were heard. Pilot Mitchell was confused by the reply. The steamer wanted to cross? The damn fool, Mitchell uttered under his breath. Pilot Mitchell sounded several short warning blasts from the Jane Christenson’s whistles and ordered his charge’s engines to full reverse. Pilot Mitchell and Captain Wickman knew it was going to be too late.
Aboard the Lexington, Pilot Angell and Captain Pendleton had heard the alarm signals but could not understand why the southbound vessel had not altered her course. Captain Pendleton ordered full steam ahead in a hope to avoid the looming bow of the Jane Christenson. If the Lexington could gain enough speed, he could pull her stern clear of any collision. The Lexington’s engines increased in their intensity but it was too little too late. The Lexington was not going to clear the bow of the southbound steamer.
Suddenly the bow of the Jane Christenson surged into the hull of northbound steamer, on her starboard side forward amidships. The thick and stubby bow of the Jane Christenson splintered the hull in a horrific crescendo of cracking wood and steel. Captain Wickman ordered an immediate report from the engine room. Aboard the Lexington, Captain Pendleton and Pilot Angell took immediate action. The two men instantly felt the steamer take a starboard list. The Lexington, both men know, had only minutes to survive.
Throughout the Lexington, it was clear that the vessel had been struck by something. Officers, mates and crew without hesitation or panic, began to assist passengers to the rails of the vessel. It was clear, by the list of the vessel, that time would be precious. With several tug boats operating in the bustling waterway, all had witnessed the collision and all were rushing alongside to take passengers to safety. Meanwhile on the bridge of the Lexington, Captain Pendleton passed orders to his officers and mates to assist the passengers and to ensure that all spaces were clear. The steamer’s manifest was unclear. Captain Pendleton had no way of knowing exactly how many souls were aboard.  He would have to rely on his men and his own accounting of all of the passenger spaces to ensure that all were put over safely and that none of his charges were unable to escape certain death in the icy waters. Captain Pendleton began assisting passengers onto the main decks to depart the steamer.
John Cobb, the purser aboard the Lexington raced through the passageways to the point of impact from the southbound freighter. He quickly scanned the destroyed staterooms to ensure that no one was in the compartments. Confident that all were devoid of passengers, he returned to the main deck to his emergency station and began assisting other passengers to the rails to disembark. In the engine room, Chief Engineer Eldon C. Keenan had heard the passing signals and then, in a matter of seconds, felt the horrific and thunderous crunch of the collision. Water from the East River poured into the engine room. There would be no way he could save the steamer. He received orders from Captain Pendleton. Clear the space and get out. Chief Engineer Keenan passed word to his men. Clear out of the engine room and get to safety. The massive boilers serving as ticking time bombs as the icy waters rushed around them. Hopefully Chief Engineer Keenan prayed, the newly installed equipment would stand up to the temperature change and not explode – instantly sending shrapnel and certain death to those in the engine room and nearby compartments and decks.
A flotilla of Good Samaritan vessels came alongside the stricken steamer in what felt like seconds. The tugboats – the Reading Railroad tugboat Patience, the Diamond S., the Elmira, and the John Rugge – converged on the sinking steamer and their crewmen began assisting passengers – college students, mothers with small children, crewmen from the steamer, a set of honeymooners, and businessmen to safety. Only minutes had elapsed. There was no panic. There were no frantic screams. Everyone, following orders provided calmly and coolly by the Lexington’s officers and mates, remained calm and collected. The Lexington sank lower and lower into the East River. Within ten minutes, the Lexington, split in two, had sunk into the muddy bottom of the East River. Only the superstructure of the vessel peered out from the surface of the water.
While the tugboats transported the rescued ashore, New York City Fireboats and Police boats converged on the scene. The arching beams from deck lights and searchlights scanned the waters for those who may have leapt into the water to survive the sinking. A few, it was quickly determined, were not aboard any of the tugboats. Several crewmen were missing. Sadly, the last reported sighting of the missing men had been them returning to the forecastle to get the recently issued pay. For the missing men, their rush to save their earnings spelled their demise. Captain Wickman and Pilot Mitchell’s attempt to keep the bow of their steamer engaged into the stricken steamer to try and stem the incoming rush of water failed and the Jane Christenson retreated to the flats off of Red Hook Brooklyn. Despite the horrific collision, she was relatively unscathed by the incident.
The collision between the two vessels fell under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service. Serving as the chair of the inquiry was Captain George Fried, who had been a hero during the brave rescues of the crews of the Antinoe in 1926 and of the Florida in 1929. While speculation and reports varied in the press from a host of sources – including those aboard both vessels – the testimony of both captains and crews would prove vital in determining the cause of the incident and to determine if charges of negligence were warranted. During the investigation, both Captain Pendleton and Captain Wickman offered different accounts of the sound signals provided by both vessels. Captain Pendleton indicated that the Jane Christenson offered none until after the collision – three short blasts. Captain Wickman argued that he and his pilot had in fact offered several sound signals and that Captain Pendleton did not heed any of them in a timely and prudent manner. All of the men who testified on behalf of their respective captains corroborated their own captain’s version of events. In late January of 1935, both Captain Pendleton and Captain Wickman were exonerated of any “reckless” actions involved in the incident. The U.S. Steamboat Inspection Service had delivered their findings. However, there was still more to come of the case.
A subsequent inquiry held by both the Steamboat Inspection Service and the Bureau of Navigation continued for several months. In April of 1935, Captain Pendleton indicated in his testimony that due to the heavy congestion of traffic in the waterway, not just on the night in question, but on many occasions as he plied the route, he was forced to maneuver his charge closer to Manhattan than to the Brooklyn shoreline. This alteration of course was due to the heavy traffic and that maneuver, “lessened the lateral distance between her (the Lexington) and the freighter.” Meanwhile, Captain Wickman of the Jane Christenson asserted that his vessel had been within the rules of the road and that his testimony never wavered. The Board of Inquiry offered its final determination in late April of 1935. Captain Pendleton was exonerated of any wrong-doing. The entire incident had been the result of misinterpreted signals.
In an incident that could have been avoided, there were only two confirmed losses of life. Considering the weather conditions, time of day, and the limited time in which the Lexington sank into the East River, the loss of life could have been much higher. The well-trained and professional crew of the Lexington coupled with the alert and diligent mariners working in the busy waterway clearly assisted in ensuring that the stricken souls were plucked to safety quickly and efficiently. The Colonial Line Steamer Lexington had met her demise but unlike the Lexington that burned and sank in the Long Island Sound in 1840 with the loss of over one hundred and fifty men, women and children, this Lexington and her passengers and crew were very lucky on the night of January 2, 1935. All of course considered themselves lucky but that Harvard University student who, as he stood along the rail of the tugboat that was his savior realized that his school bag and his long-labor of love thesis had been lost forever, in our waters.

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