Updated: Sep 1, 2022
The paddlewheel steamboat Lexington left its pier on Manhattan's East River at 4:00 p.m. on January 13, 1840, bound for Stonington, Connecticut. The ship was expected to arrive in Stonington the following morning, in time to meet a connecting train to Boston on the newly built Providence and Stonington Railroad. (It should be noted that the Long Island Railroad, completed in 1844, was developed to compete for this New York-to-Boston passenger service. The LIRR from Brooklyn to Greenport, with ferry connection to Stonington, promised faster service to Boston).
Commissioned by Cornelius Vanderbilt in September 1834, the Lexington was 207 feet in length and weighed 496 tons, featuring a large cabin that included both a lounge and a dining saloon. She was one of the most luxurious steamers on its route, outfitted with ornate teak doors and paneling. At the time, the Lexington was reputedly the fastest steamer on Long Island Sound. On this voyage, she was carrying 143 passengers and crew and a cargo of 150 bales of cotton. The day was particularly cold and the seas beyond Throgs Neck particularly high. Almost all the passengers aboard elected to pay the extra 50¢ fare to be off the deck and inside the luxurious heated cabins. At about seven o'clock, the ship was four miles off Eaton's Neck on the north shore of Long Island.
The passengers had just finished dinner when the ship's first mate noticed that the woodwork and casings around the smokestack were on fire. Crew members tried to extinguish the fire, using buckets and boxes to throw water on the flames. But the ship's cargo of cotton ignited quickly, causing the fire to spread from the smokestack to the entire superstructure. Once it was apparent that the fire could not be extinguished, the ship's three lifeboats were prepared for launch. However, because the crewmen could not reach the engine room to shut off the boilers, the ship's paddlewheel was still churning at full speed. The first boat was sucked into the wheel, killing its occupants. The ropes used to lower the other two boats were cut incorrectly, causing the boats to hit the water stern-first. Both boats promptly sank. Bales of cotton were then thrown into the water to be used as rafts.
The Lexington’s Pilot turned the ship toward the shore in hopes of beaching it. However, the drive-rope that controlled the rudder quickly burned through, leaving the ship adrift. The engine finally stopped working two miles from shore. The fire had spread to such an extent that the center of the main deck collapsed shortly after 8:00 p.m., forcing the remaining passengers and crew to jump into the frigid water. Those who had nothing to climb onto quickly succumbed to hypothermia.
The ship, out of control, drifted northeast, away from land and was still burning when it sank at 3:00 a.m. Although other ships were in the area, rescue attempts were impossible due to the rough water and lack of visibility. The sloop Improvement could have rescued the passengers, but turned away because her Captain did not want to miss the next high tide. Of the 143 people on board the Lexington, only four survived, including one passenger, Captain Chester Hillard of Norwich, Connecticut.
One of the passengers who perished was eighteen-year-old Sophia Wheeler, who was traveling with her fiancé from New Jersey, where she had been teaching, to Massachusetts for her wedding. A poignant reminder of this young woman’s short life is this unfinished needlework sampler, with the inscription "Sophia Wheeler/AE 8 ys. 1829" inside a heart-edged, rectangular cartouche. The sinking of the Lexington remains Long Island Sound's worst disaster. An attempt was made to salvage the Lexington in 1850. She was briefly brought to the surface and a 30-pound mass of melted silver coins was recovered from the hull. However, the chains supporting the hull snapped and the ship broke apart, sinking back to the bottom of the Sound. Today, the Lexington lies in 140 feet of water off Old Field Point. There is allegedly still gold and silver onboard that has not been recovered.
Although the sinking of the Lexington was a disaster for the passengers on board, it helped to launch the career of Nathaniel Currier. Currier started his lithographic business in New York in 1835, initially producing only the materials that clients requested, such as sheet music, letterheads and handbills. Over time, Currier turned to independent print publishing, creating pictures of current events. This change coincided with changes in the newspaper business. The rise of “popular” or “penny” papers, like the New York Sun (launched in 1833) made the news more available to lower-income readers. As the Sun’s editor, Benjamin Day, reportedly said, “We newspaper people thrive best on the calamities of others.” (The news business has not changed much in nearly 200 years!) And a disaster, well illustrated, made for compelling reading. While most newspapers of the time used woodcut imagery, lithographs were more vivid. Working with the New York Sun, Currier’s Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington, published by the Sun just three days after the disaster, sold thousands of copies, becoming one of the most widely distributed news picture of its generation. It propelled Nathaniel Currier to national prominence and would eventually allow Currier and Ives to dominate the nation’s lithography market.