Expedition to find the lost Vanderbilt steamer, Lexington which burned and sank in Long Island Sound in 1840 with a loss of 154 lives.
I can’t recall what piqued my interest in the Lexington. I think perhaps researcher Bob Fleming put me on the track of her. He certainly did a tremendous amount of digging in the archives for me. First it was the attraction of the story behind her burning and sinking and later salvage attempt. Newspaper accounts said she was raised and lost by salvagers in 1842. And again in 1850 it was reported she had been raised for good.
It then became a challenge for me when everyone claimed the Lexington was long gone because no one had ever found her over the years.
I’d heard this all before, and it was akin to waving the red flag in front of a stubborn bull. Besides, there was no record of her final salvage in insurance company historic records.
Many had looked for the Lexington since the nineteen fifties, but none had come close to finding her. No contemporary report gave an approximate site of her sinking. Sightings were vague and none gave a ballpark location. But thanks to the efforts of Fleming, he finally ran across the coroner’s report of the sinking and the description of the lighthouse keeper at Old Field Point near Port Jefferson.
He stated the Lexington sank four miles due north of the point and slightly west. He was damned close. Using a Klein side scan sonar we found the wreckage three and a half miles due north of the point and slightly to the west.
She is broken into three sections, the breaks no doubt coming during her salvage when she was temporarily raised to the surface. Two of the reasons divers and fishermen had not run across her is because she is lying in 140 feet of water, a tricky and dangerous dive, and almost under the path of the Bridgeport – Port Jefferson ferry which has been in operation since 1874.
Since NUMA’s discovery, many divers have investigated the wreckage, her location becoming well known among local dive boat captains.
The Lexington is a fascinating wreck of historical significance and we were very fortunate in finding her.
NUMA’s choice of the Lexington was determined by several factors regarding her status as an important historical steamer of Long Island Sound. Cornelius Vanderbilt had her constructed especially for himself, sparing no expense, and including many innovations. Vanderbilt was a significant representative of America’s heritage of free interprise and he began his huge fortune with his use of the Lexington.
The Lexington ,was a great example of the Sound steamers of the early nineteenth century, being especially fast and strong, a fine example of our early maritime craftsmanship. The disaster involved the greatest loss of life at that time in the Sound and was the first great steamship disaster in steamboat, history.
She came into existence at a time when the evolution of the steam engine was shaping the railroad systems of the future and steamer lines at sea. The tall ships, powered by the wind, were about to disappear from commercial shipping and the stagecoach would soon be obsolete. By 1835, rival sidewheel steamers plied Long Island Sound with passengers and cargo from New York City to Providence and Boston where a new railroad connecting Boston and Providence was completed attracting many passengers away from the stages, hastening their demise. New York capitalists were more interested :in expanding the flourishing railroads by 1840 rather than the steamer lines with their dangerous route out of New York Harbor and around the perilous Point Judith near Providence, and in a few years, the steamers would yield to the rails . From 1835 to 1840, however, the Lexington was the fastest vessel on the route from New York City to Boston.
The Vanderbilts, Cornelius and brother Jacob, were emergent financial figures in shipping and railroads at this time and in 1835, Cornelius ordered the Lexington built in New York City in the Bishop and Simonson shipyards to his specifications with no contract and unlimited funds lie supervised her progress daily, including many new innovations in her construction. The best of woods were used and she had 30% more faster than other vessels of her type. The first of its kind, her deck was arched with pressure against the ends of the timber instead of against the sides for added strength. Her vertical beam engine eras so extremely efficient that she consumed about half the wood other steamers used. The machinery was all in the middle so many strengthening measures were taken to make the hull yell supported. Measuring 207′ by 21′by 11′, with a wide, square stern, she: was long, slim and fast. Her two paddlewheel.; made her 46′ wide there, each having a 9′ face and were turned by a walking beam attached to their shaft.
Wanting a vessel to rival the John J. Richmond, the New Jersey Steam Navigation and Transportation Company persuaded Vanderbilt to sell her to them in 1838 for about $72,000. Her furnaces were converted to coal fuel, having two huge blowers installed to provide sufficient draft to ignite coal and she continued satisfactory service for the next two years.
On Monday, January 13, 1840 at 4:00 o’clock p.m., the Lexington was chosen for the New York to Stonington run because of bad weather with strong winds, high seas and sub zero temperatures would require the strongest boat for the journey.
The Stonington run was made regularly at night to meet train that connected with Boston. The Lexington’s motto was “Through by Dawn” and her reputation for speed guaranteed a quick trip. She could speed along at twenty three miles per hour, as fast as some of the later blockade runners of the Civil War.
Her captain was usually Captain Jake Vanderbilt, but on this night, he was ill at home, unable to make the trip, so Sound veteran Captain George Child took command of the vessel loaded with a cargo of cotton bales and passengers.
As she steamed past Eaton’s Neck lighthouse at approximately 7;00 o’clock p.m., fire broke out near the single stack, setting the bales of cotton afire. A bucket brigade formed immediately but the high winds fanned the flames out of control quickly. spreading the fire along the length of the hull. A few hours later, controlled only by the elements, the helpless vessel drifted ablaze in a north easterly direction in the middle of the Sound. Those unfortunate passengers that survived the burning by jumping in the water died of exposure or drowning. The life boats, launched in panic while the boat was churning along under full power were immediately swamped in the wake.
Captain Hillard, a surviving passenger, looked at his watch sitting on a floating cotton bale and noted the exact time the hull sank below the surface. It was exactly 3;00 o’clock a. m. on the morning of January 14.
There were four survivors, all experienced seamen and all but one were rescued by the sloop merchant and its master, Captain Meeker by noon that day. They included Captain Chester Hillard, Captain Stephen Manchester, pilot of the Lexington, Charles 13. Smith, fireman, and David Crowley, second mate. Crowley survived exposure for forty-eight hours until his cotton bale floated ashore near Baiting Hollow, Long Island, on the beach of the Mary Hutchinson property.
When four bodies were recovered and because of the great loss of life, as much as a possible 154 persons, a Coroner IC inquest was held immediately afterward in New York City. All principals were called as witnesses, including Vanderbilt himself’. Other notables such as Captain Elihu Bunker, United State: Steam Engine Inspector, and Captain William Comstock of the New Jersey Steam Navigation Company testified to the soundness, of her hull, machinery and boilers. The builders and iron workers also testified, as did the witnesses who identified the bodies.
The Jury charged that the use of blowers was dangerous, that passengers and cotton bales were an unfortunate mix for cargo; that the inspectors were not accurate when they passed the soundness of the steam system; that poor discipline among the crew members and officers caused loss of life unnecessarily and Captains Child and Manchester were held culpable for their conduct after the breakout of the fire.
Two years later, in 1842, somehow the burned hull was raise(! for a brief time to the surface and a lump of melted silver coins of 30 pounds was retrieved, part of a shipment of specie by the Herndon Express Company. Shortly after, the chains holding her snapped, releasing her to settle, keel upright on the bottom of the Sound in 150 feet of water. Forgotten, untouched, and well preserved, she remained there for the next one hundred. and forty four years, a historically rich and archaeologically significant vessel close to Suffolk County’s North Shore. The Lexington, a symbol of Long Island’s’ maritime history, dates back to the early part of the nineteenth century and is irreplaceable as a historical resource for Suffolk County.