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Side-Scan Sonar Illuminates Story of LI's Worst Disaster - Part I

July 23, 2020

 

The 1840 fire that sank the steamboat Lexington remains the worst disaster on Long Island Sound. And now history buffs can get a better sense of what the shipwreck looks like thanks to an Amagansett diver and maritime historian’s side scan-sonar documentation project.
Ben Roberts has set out to document as many of the thousands of shipwrecks in the waters around Long Island and off New Jersey coast as he can. And because of its historical importance the Lexington was high on his priority list. So in May, he spent half a day searching the waters near the Stratford Shoals Lighthouse north of Port Jefferson to make what is believed to be the first scan in about two decades, the highest-resolution scan to date, and the only publicly available sonar image of the wreck. The scans show the hull – broken into two pieces after a failed 1842 salvage attempt – and one of its two detached paddle wheels in startling clarity.
Barry Lipsky, president of the Long Island Divers Association, called Roberts’ side-scan work “an incredible gift to the divers. We are very excited to see the outcome of his efforts.”
 
The Ship
Part of the interest in the Lexington, beyond the loss of 139 of the 143 persons aboard and the amazing stories of the survivors, stems from the man who built it: “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt.
By 1840, Vanderbilt was the major player in the Long Island Sound steamboat business. A host of competing lines strove to get passages from New York to ports along the North Shore of Long Island Sound to connect with trains to complete the voyage to Boston. Vanderbilt bought out some rivals and put others out of business by continually building the fastest, safest and most luxurious steamboats.Lexington held that distinction when it was built in 1835 but a few years later it had become obsolete in his mind and he sold it to a railroad that used it to compete with him. Trying to maximize their profit, the new owner made a mistake that compromised safety with fatal consequences for almost all on board.
The Lexington was 205 feet long and built by Vanderbilt with boilers designed to handle the highest pressure while traveling down the Sound at top speed – important marketing tools after a series of catastrophic stories of steamboat boiler explosions in earlier years. On its maiden voyage in January 1835, the vessel completed the 210-mile trip to Providence at an average record-setting speed of 17 miles per hour. During the 1830s, steamboats also were running to several points in Southern Connecticut: Norwich, New London, New Haven, Bridgeport and up the Connecticut River to Hartford. The Hartford route became the most popular.
When the railroad from Boston was extended southwest to Stonington, Connecticut, in 1837, the steamboats began running there instead of Providence. The trip was faster but passengers arrived at Stonington to transfer to the train at 3 o’clock in the morning. To keep Providence in the mix, local businessmen started their own line. The railroad responded by buying Lexington from Vanderbilt and running it to Providence.
 
Last Voyage of the Lexington  
The story of the Lexington ended badly on the night of January 13, 1840. The five-year-old pride of the Navigation Company left Manhattan at 4 p.m. in a cold spell that had left sheets of ice floating on the Sound. At 7:30 p.m., Stephen Manchester, the pilot steering the steamboat, heard a cry of “Fire!” above the routine clanking and chuffing. He spun around and was horrified to see smoke and flames pouring from around the smokestack. Manchester attempted to turn the vessel towards Eatons Neck but it was four miles away and the tiller ropes burned through so the ship continued out of control, heading northeast at thirteen miles per hour The Lexington carried a cargo of one-hundred-fifty cotton bales, some stored around the smokestack. While these fueled the fire, they would later serve as life rafts.
When the fire broke out on the freight deck, Captain George Child raced there and directed crew members to start a fire pump and form a bucket brigade. Realizing the effort was hopeless, the child shouted to the passengers to head for the three lifeboats. Unfortunately, the flames kept the crew from extinguishing the boilers, so the Lexington continued to plow through the waves. The forward speed caused the lifeboats to capsize as soon as they were lowered, throwing the occupants into the freezing water.
Those who survived owed their lives to the quick thinking of Chester Hilliard, a 24-year-old captain traveling as a passenger. Hilliard realized it would be futile to try to escape until the ship’s speed diminished. When it slowed after about fifteen minutes, he organized the deckhands and passengers to throw cotton bales overboard. He and one of the ship’s firemen, Benjamin Cox, shoved the last bale into the Sound and climbed onto it about 8 p.m. A few minutes later the center of the main deck collapsed, throwing those gathered there into the middle of the fire.
Hilliard survived and a week later told a coroner’s inquest how he managed it: “We were sitting astride of the bale with our feet in the water… About 4 o’clock, the bale capsized.” The two men were able to climb back aboard the makeshift raft but eventually, Cox was so cold he could no longer hold on or speak. “I rubbed him and beat his flesh,” Hilliard said. Then a large wave shook the bale and “Cox slipped off and I saw him no more.” About seven hours later, a Captain Meeker of the sloop Merchant spotted Hilliard waving his hat and rescued him.
    After Hilliard abandoned ship, about thirty others remained on the bow with pilot Manchester. After consuming the center of the ship, the fire had died down.  But by midnight, Manchester was convinced the Lexington could not remain afloat much longer. So the pilot managed to climb aboard a cotton bale occupied by a man named McKinney. At 3 a.m. McKinney died and the hulk of the ship sank in 140 feet of water northwest of Port Jefferson, leaving all but four of the 143 passengers and crew died in the first and worst steamboat fire on Long Island Sound.
Manchester told the inquest that “my hands were then so frozen that I could not use them at all.” But when he saw the Merchant at noon, an hour after the vessel had rescued Hilliard, he was able to raise a handkerchief between his hands and capture the captain’s attention. Meeker was not done saving survivors. Two hours after rescuing Manchester, the Merchant’s skipper noticed fireman Charles Smith on a bale and took him aboard.
The most amazing survival story was that of Second Mate David Crowley. When he went over the side with a flaming cotton bale, the water extinguished the bale’s fire. The Long Island Democrat noted that Crowley “drifted ashore near Riverhead… having been 40 hours exposed to the severity of the weather, after which he made his way through large quantities of ice and snow, before gaining the beach, and then walked three-quarters of a mile to the house where he is now. His feet and hands are a little frozen.” He had drifted nearly 50 miles to Baiting Hollow and knocked on the door of the house before collapsing, Crowley was expected to lose his toes and a finger. Yet he still had the presence of mind to retrieve the cotton bale as a souvenir after being revived. (He kept it until the outbreak of the Civil War when he donated it to be used for Union uniforms. Cotton from some of the other bales was made into souvenir shirts.) In the days after the fire, bodies and baggage washed up along fifteen miles of Long Island shoreline. After some of the baggage was plundered, guards were stationed on the beaches.
The inquest jury excoriated the owners and crew of the Lexington. “Had the buckets been manned at the commencement of the fire, it would have been immediately extinguished,” the jury’s report stated. Had the crew been more disciplined, the lifeboats could have been successfully launched. It condemned “the odious practice of carrying cotton…on board of passenger boats, in a manner in which it shall be liable to take fire.” But it was not until a dozen years later when the steamboat Henry Clay burned on the Hudson, that new safety rules were instituted.
There are two interesting footnotes to the fiery disaster. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had booked passage but had to remain in New York for a lecture and had not risked almost certain death. And young engraver Nathaniel Currier was asked by the New York Sun to produce an image of the burning steamboat. It was one of the first engravings in a daily newspaper, and Currier later made color versions that made the artist famous.
Look for Part II in our September issue.

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