Lexington Shipwreck in Long Island, New York Jan. 13, 1840
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
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
    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.

This is an extract from the information on: