Steamboat Lexington







Construction on the paddlewheel steamship Lexington began during the month of September, 1834 at the Bishop and Simonson shipyard in New York, New York. Her hull was 120 feet long and 21 feet wide. The Lexington was 490 gross tons. Work was personally supervised by Cornelius Vanderbuilt, who ensured that the finest grade of materials would be used. Seasoned white oak and yellow pine was used in the box frame design of the hull and deck. The strength of the hull was derived from bridge plans in the publication, Town's Patent for Bridges . Her wood burning, vertical-beam engine was built by the West Point Foundry. Ship furnishings included teak railings, paneling, and stairways. The highest quality of fixtures was used throughout the ship. Safety was considered in every aspect during the planning and construction of the ship. The single smokestack was encased throughout all decks. Exposed combustable materials were not used near the boilers and steampipes. A pipe was fitted into the hull which allowed the hot cinders from the boilers to pass into the water instead of on the decks. A fire engine was installed with hoses and pumps. Three lifeboats were placed on the Lexington near the stern and a life raft on the forward deck. These lifeboats could only carry half of the full complement, but they fit the requirements of the day.
On June 1, 1834, she began service as a day boat between New York, NY and Providence, RI. Passengers enjoyed the fastest boat on Long Island Sound. Service and accommodations were first class. In 1837 the very successful service was moved to Stonington, Connecticut. The New Jersey Steamship Navigation and Transportation Company purchased the Lexington in December of 1838 for $60,000. The boilers were converted to burn coal, and the interior was refurbished at a cost of $12,000. The coal fired engines were force fed by fans, which in turn would drive the steamship even faster and hotter.
Daybreak found the Lexington tied up in New York on January 13, 1840. The morning air was very cold, about zero degrees. Ice was beginning to form on the surface of the water. One hundred and fifty bales of cotton were loaded under the promenade deck of the steamship. Some of these bales were placed within a few feet of the smokestack casing. A fire had occured in the casing only a few days earlier, but no one took the problem seriously even after repairs were made. It was a mistake that would later prove disastrous.
For the evenings Long Island Sound crossing, Captain George Child was in charge of the ship and crew of thirty-four. The regular master, Captain Jacob Vanderbuilt (Cornelius's brother), was home sick with a cold. A number of sea captains were boarding on their way home to see loved ones. Passengers began arriving in the early afternoon and paid $1.00 for the trip to Stonington. The fare was 50 cents if passengers stayed on the decks, but the temperatures were too cold for anyone. For those passengers traveling beyond the Connecticut destination, a train would continue their journey to Boston. Adolphus Harnden boarded with $20,000 in silver coins and $50,000 in bank notes for the Merchants Bank. The ship took on about 115 passengers and departed her dock for the last time around three o'clock in the afternoon. The twenty-three foot diameter paddlewheels propelled the vessel down the East River and around Throgs Neck into Long Island Sound. A brisk north wind was blowing, producing a heavy sea. Additional coal was thrown on the fire and the Lexington began to pick up speed as she began her journey into the open sea. White caps could be seen on the water as Manhattan drifted into the setting sun.
By six o'clock the passengers were settled in and enjoying dinner. They had a choice of baked flounder in a wine sauce or mutton with boiled tomatoes. Conversations covered the lastest news, politics, and banking rates. Some ventured out onto the decks for a short time, only to return quickly to the warm interior. One table was engrossed in a game of cards. No one knew of the horror that was about to happen.
At seven thirty, a fire was reported by the first mate. Looking out the wheel house, flames could be seen shooting from the aft section of the promenade deck, near the smokestack casing. Captain Child steered the vessel south toward the north shore of Long Island in an effort to beach her, but soon the steering became unresponsive. The Lexington then turned to a heading of east, on its own, as if trying to out run the flames. The lines between the rudder and the wheelhouse were burned through. With her steam engine running at full power, the Lexington was now out of control. The fire quickly engulfed the entire aft section of the ship. Crew members in the engine room were forced out by the flames before the engines could be shutdown. Launching the lifeboats while the Lexington plowed through the water was impossible. The fire fighting equipment was not deployed properly and any chance of stopping the fire was lost. The silver coins were dumped onto the deck so the wooden box could be used in a bucket brigade. Flames were now as high as the smokestack. They could be seen from the shoreline of Connecticut and Long Island. Many boats in the shoreline marinas were blocked by low tide, ice, and rough seas in an attempt to reach the burning steamboat. Captain Child ordered the launching of the lifeboats.
The scene on the decks were of terror and panic. As the crew were preparing a boat for launching, passengers stormed the lifeboat, filling it well beyond capacity. In the wake of a trashing paddlewheel, the boat and everyone in it was quickly swept away and lost. The Lexington was slowing down, giving some the chance to throw cotton bales over the side as rafts. By midnight the steamship was burned from bow to stern. Its deck had collapsed into the hull. At three o'clock the next morning, the Lexington slowly sank into Long Island Sound.
Many people who remained in the water succumbed to the freezing cold water. In the end, only four people would survive. All but one of the survivors was frostbitten. The Second Mate, David Crowley was able to dig into the center of a cotton bale to stay warm. He floated for forty-eight hours until he was washed ashore. He was to keep the bale in his Providence, Rhode Island home for many years until he sold it for the Civil War effort.
On September 20, 1842, the Lexington was lifted by heavy chains to the surface, only to break up and sink again into 130 feet of water. A thirty pound melted mass of silver was recovered from inside the hull.
Today the wreck lies broken up across the bottom in anywhere from 80 feet deep to 140 feet of water. The wreck is covered in wire from the salvage operation, fishing line, and other wreckage. The bottom is very dark, cold, and extremely hazardous. Navigation lines are a must. A paddlewheel is located at Loran 26679.1/43979.9 in 80 feet. The bow is at 26652.1/43962.8 in 140 feet.