The steamboat Lexington pulled away from its Manhattan pier at 4 p.m. on Jan. 13, 1840, to begin another voyage to New England.
When the vessel was launched five years earlier by Cornelius Vanderbilt, it was the pride of Long Island Sound’s steamboat fleet. But deciding it was past its prime, the self-styled "Commodore" sold it in 1838 to a competitor. So the Lexington was owned by the New Jersey Steam Navigation Co. as it threaded up the East River and out into the Sound, where a cold spell had formed floating sheets of ice.
The trip to Stonington, Connecticut, was uneventful until 7:30 p.m. That’s when pilot Stephen Manchester, steering from the pilothouse, was alerted by a crewman that smoke and flames had erupted around the smokestack behind him.
Aware that fire on a wooden steamboat meant almost certain destruction, Manchester instinctively attempted to turn the vessel south to beach it on the nearest land — Eatons Neck. But the peninsula was four miles away. Before Manchester could change course, the fire burned through the ropes connecting the steering wheel to the rudder, so the Lexington continued northeast at 13 mph with its motion fanning the flames, according to the testimony at a coroner’s inquest.
By morning, the charred remains of the Lexington would be resting on the bottom of the Sound off Port Jefferson in 140 feet of water. All but four of the 143 passengers and crew would be dead in the first steamboat fire on Long Island Sound.
The loss of the Lexington remains the worst disaster in the Sound's history. Nevertheless, its story is little known outside maritime history and scuba diving circles, though it received widespread newspaper coverage at the time, including details of the catastrophe, lists of the casualties and the harrowing accounts of the survivors.
There was a brief resurgence of interest in the wreck in 1983 after it was discovered by author Clive Cussler, who wrote about and had a passion for marine archaeology, and his team of researchers. They found that the wreck was broken in half from a failed salvage attempt in 1842. Advanced scuba divers subsequently have visited the site despite the usually terrible visibility, producing fuzzy video and primitive side-scan sonar images.
Clear images of what remains on the bottom became available only this past summer, when diver and side-scan sonar buff Ben Roberts visited the waters west of the Stratford Shoal Lighthouse to do an extensive mapping search.
Roberts, 37, an Amagansett resident who helped discover and document the Civil War wreck Adriatic 30 miles south of Montauk in 2016, located and scanned the two halves of the hull and one of two paddlewheels in a third location. He found no trace of the second paddlewheel, indicating fire or more than a century of deterioration had left nothing rising above the sediment.
Lexington’s last voyage
By the 1830s, Cornelius Vanderbilt was the major player in Long Island Sound's steamboat industry. He and myriad competing lines vied for passengers from New York City to ports in Connecticut and Rhode Island who connected with trains to complete the journey to Boston. Vanderbilt bought out some rivals and put others out of business by building the fastest, safest and most luxurious steamboats. The 205-foot Lexington held that distinction when it was built in 1835. On its maiden voyage in January 1835, the vessel completed the 210-mile trip to Providence, Rhode Island, at an average record-setting speed of 17 mph. But after more than two years of operating the Lexington, Vanderbilt decided it was obsolete and sold it to the New Jersey Steam Navigation Co.
The Lexington was built by Vanderbilt with boilers designed to handle the high pressure generated by traveling the Sound at top speed — an important marketing tool after an earlier series of catastrophic steamboat boiler explosions.
Trying to maximize profit, the new owners altered the propulsion system to burn coal rather than wood, making the boilers run hotter and the ship faster. But inquest testimony after the disaster indicated there had been previous smaller fires around the boilers. And on the last voyage, the company would make a fatal mistake loading cargo.
Before the departure from New York City, 150 cotton bales were brought aboard. Placed adjacent to the smokestack, they would first fuel the fire — then help save lives.
When the fire was discovered, Capt. George Child directed crew members to start a steam "fire engine," or water pump, but it didn’t work. Efforts to form a bucket brigade were also fruitless. So Child shouted to the passengers to head for the three lifeboats. Unfortunately, the flames prevented the crew from reaching the boilers to release the steam pressure, so the Lexington continued to plow through the waves at cruising speed. The forward motion caused the lifeboats to capsize as soon as they were lowered, throwing their occupants into the frigid water.
Some who were not fatally burned or immediately drowned owed their lives to the quick thinking of Chester Hillard, a 24-year-old captain traveling as a passenger. He realized it was futile to try to abandon the flaming vessel until its speed diminished. When the steam pressure lessened after about 15 minutes and the ship stopped, Hillard organized deckhands and passengers to throw cotton bales from the center of the ship overboard.
Hillard and one of the vessel’s firemen, Benjamin Cox, shoved the last bale amidships into the Sound and climbed on about 8 p.m. Minutes later the center of the main deck, where they had been waiting, collapsed, throwing those still gathered there into the flames.
Hillard survived, and a week later he 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 pair 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," Hillard related. When a large wave rocked the bale, "Cox slipped off and I saw him no more."
About seven hours later — 15 freezing hours after Hillard abandoned the Lexington — a Captain Meeker, whose first name was never recorded, of the sloop Merchant rescued Hillard, who was spotted on the cotton bale waving his hat.
With Hillard and his group having abandoned ship, about 30 others remained on the bow with the pilot, Manchester. The fire had died down after consuming the center of the ship, but by midnight, Manchester was convinced the Lexington was on the verge of sinking. So he jumped overboard and managed to climb aboard a cotton bale occupied by a man named McKinney. At 3 a.m. McKinney died, and the remains of the ship sank northwest of Port Jefferson.
By that point, Manchester told the inquest, "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 Hillard, he raised a handkerchief between his hands to 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.
By far the most amazing survival story was that of Second Mate David Crowley. He went over the side with a flaming cotton bale, which was extinguished by waves. As recounted by the Long Island Democrat, a weekly newspaper, 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."
Crowley had drifted nearly 50 miles to Baiting Hollow and knocked on the door of the house before collapsing. Although he was expected to lose his toes and a finger to frostbite, he later had the presence of mind to retrace his route to the beach and retrieve the cotton bale as a keepsake. Crowley retained it until the outbreak of the Civil War, when he donated it to be made into Union uniforms. Cotton from other bales was made into souvenir shirts.
In the days after the fire, bodies and baggage washed up along 15 miles of Long Island shoreline. Guards were stationed on the beaches after baggage was plundered.
The inquest jury excoriated the owners and crew of the Lexington after hearing testimony from Hillard, Manchester and others.
"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." Surprisingly, it would take a dozen years, until the steamboat Henry Clay burned on the Hudson, for tougher safety regulations to be instituted.
There are two interesting footnotes to the fiery tragedy. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had booked passage but escaped almost certain death when he remained in New York City to give a lecture.
And a young engraver named Nathaniel Currier was asked by The New York Sun to produce a black-and-white image of the burning steamboat that ran as "extra" insert three days after the fire. As one of the earliest news engravings to run in a daily newspaper, it generated huge interest — and sales. Currier then printed color versions, some with type set by the Sun, that made him famous.
Scanning the wreck
Ben Roberts, a freelance executive consultant, set out three years ago to use side-scan sonar to document the thousands of shipwrecks around Long Island and off the New Jersey coast. And because of its historical importance, the Lexington was high on his list.
Last May he spent half a day searching the waters near the Stratford Shoals Lighthouse to make what are believed to be the first scans of the wreck in about two decades — and the highest-resolution images to date.
Roberts, who grew up in Virginia and moved to Long Island's East End in 2017, has been interested in maritime history, shipwrecks and boating since he was about 6, when his father gave him a book about the wreck of a Spanish galleon. He became a certified scuba diver in the late 1990s and then took advanced courses to explore deeper shipwrecks.
Roberts and longtime dive buddy Alex Barnard spent about $16,000 on a side-scan sonar system in early 2018, and Roberts purchased a 26-foot Glacier Bay catamaran as its platform. The pair created a company called Eastern Search & Survey to lure commercial side-scan sonar business, though so far their venture remains an expensive hobby.
To date, Roberts, working primarily alone because of his flexible work schedule, has scanned more than 250 wrecks whose images can be viewed on the Eastern Search & Survey page on Facebook.
Barry Lipsky, president of the Long Island Divers Association, called Roberts’ side-scan images of the region’s shipwrecks and the Lexington specifically "an incredible gift to divers."
After spending about $20,000 on fuel the previous season, Roberts last spring made a pitch for crowd funding for an overnight trip from where his boat is docked in Montauk to the Lexington site. He raised more than $500 in just a few hours.
He spent four hours on May 21 scanning the areas of Long Island Sound where he had coordinates for sections of the Lexington provided by Cussler and subsequent divers.
"The records from that period are not very complete," said Roberts, who has extensively researched shipwrecks in books and newspapers and at the National Archives, libraries and other sites. He said his findings indicate salvors recovered the steam engine and boilers from the bottom in September 1842. The paddlewheels were then cut off, explaining why one rests in 80 feet of water quite a distance from the bow and the stern sections. They raised the hull and possibly tried to tow it to Port Jefferson before it broke in half and sank again.
"At the end of the day," Roberts continued, "I’m very certain I found the bow section and a paddlewheel. We also found some uncharted wreckage not far from the bow section which looks to be about the right size, age and deterioration and construction style to possibly be the stern section." The depth ranges from 80 feet at the paddlewheel’s location to 125 feet by the bow section.
Like Cussler, who spent several weeks scanning the area, Roberts never found any trace of the second paddlewheel, meaning it probably has disintegrated.
"You never know what you’re going to get with these wreck searches," Roberts said. " ‘X’ rarely marks the spot."
Lexington at a glance
1835: Lexington is built for “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt. The 205-foot vessel is the largest, fastest and most luxurious steamboat on Long Island Sound.
1837: Vanderbilt sells the Lexington to competing company.
Jan. 13, 1840: Lexington sets off from Manhattan to Stonington, Connecticut. Fire consumes steamboat on the Sound, killing 139 of the 143 aboard, in the worst disaster in the history of the waterway.
1842: Salvors try to raise wreck, breaking it in two.
1983: Author Clive Cussler and his team of researchers discover the wreck site northwest of Port Jefferson.
2020: Diver Ben Roberts of Amagansett produces the first known side-scan sonar images of the wreckage in decades.