Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1834 commissioned a paddlewheel steamboat called the SS Lexington to be the fastest and most luxurious in operation. She turned out to be the most lethal.
Vanderbilt wanted a vessel to serve the route from New York City to Providence, R.I. When finished, the SS Lexington featured ornate teak woodwork throughout, an elegant lounge, a dining saloon and a furnished deck.
Her engine was one of the most efficient on the water, and in June 1835 she made the 180 miles between New York and Providence in 12 hours, 14 minutes.
The SS Lexington often had exciting races with another Sound steamer, the John W. Richmond. “Great liberties were taken with boiler presures, so that when races occurred, which were not infrequent events, steamboat traveling in the United States was as risky as it was exciting,” reported International Marine Engineering in 1912.
The SS Lexington wasn’t racing during the cold, windy night of Jan. 13, 1840, on the run between New York and Stonington, Conn. She was catching a train. Vanderbilt had switched the route in 1837 to meet the terminus of a new railroad. He had also sold the vessel to the New Jersey Steamship and Navigation Company, which converted the boilers to burn coal instead of wood.
Steamboats had a tendency to catch fire, and in 1838 the U.S. Congress created the Steamboat Inspection Service. It couldn’t handle the task. The SIS didn’t discover the improper conversion of the SS Lexington’s boiler, or that it burned too hot for the smokestack’s casing.
A steamboat historian wrote that ‘“when she was pressed hard, the roar of the fires could be heard all over the boat and at each revolution of the wheels she trembled from stem to stern.”
The crew of the SS Lexington shoveled extra coal into the boiler that night because of the rough seas. She was carrying 150 bales of cotton along with the passengers and crew. She left the dock at 4 p.m. Halfway to Stonington, the casings on the overheated smokestack ignited, and the fire spread to the cotton. Instead of putting out the fire immediately, crewmen went to check the engine first.
The rope that controlled the rudder burned through and the engine stopped. The steamer drifted away from land. Tragically, the sloop Improvement was less than 5 miles away and never came to the SS Lexington’s aid. The captain later explained that he was on a schedule and didn’t want to be late.
Only about 20 passengers could find lifeboats. The first lifeboat was sucked into the paddlewheel, killing all aboard. The remaining two lifeboats were lowered into the water stern first, and they were swamped immediately.
By 8 p.m. the center of the main deck collapsed. Passengers threw baggage containers and cotton bales into the water to use as rafts. Those who couldn’t find anything to cling to quickly died of hypothermia or drowned. The steamship still burned when it sank at 3 a.m.
Three who survived had climbed onto floating bales of cotton. David Crowley, the second mate, drifted for 43 hours on a cotton bale before coming ashore and staggering a mile to a private home. Charles Smith, a fireman, climbed onto a section of the paddlewheel before rescuers got to him.
An investigation revealed the boiler had been improperly converted, the crew violated fire safety procedures and the captain of the Improvement should have come to the rescue. Nothing was done until 1852, after an unusual number of steamboats exploded, caught fire or collided. Congress passed another law, the Steamboat Act of May 30, 1852. It required testing of boilers, safety valves and licensing of pilots.
Nathaniel Currier printed Awful Conflagration of the Steamboat Lexington and sold thousands of copies.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was said to have a ticket for the fatal voyage, but missed it because he was discussing his poem, The Wreck of the Hesperus, with a publisher.
The SS Lexington was brought to the surface in 1842 and 30 lbs. of melted silver were recovered. But then the chains supporting her snapped and she fell back to the bottom of the Sound, breaking into three pieces. Though there is supposedly gold and silver in her hull, she has never been recovered.
This story was updated in 2023.