Read an Excerpt
Through by Daylight
Monday, January 13, 1840
Stepping from the two-wheeled hansom cab, a tall bearded man shivered from the bitter cold and buried his chin beneath the collar of his coat. He set his carpetbag on the icy sidewalk, reached up, and handed the fare to the cabbie, who sat elevated behind the carriage. The man paused to glance at his pocket watch. The Roman numerals on the gold timepiece told him it was two minutes past three P.M. Reassuring himself that his ticket was firmly in the breast pocket of his coat, he hurried through the terminal to the pier on the other side.
The bearded man had booked passage on the steamboat Lexington, bound from New York for Stonington, Connecticut, the terminus where passengers transferred onto the railroad to continue their journey to Boston. He was returning home there, where he was Smith Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard, after giving three lectures and selling his latest poem. He never considered remaining in the confines of a New York hotel longer than necessary. He rarely felt comfortable in the city and was anxious to reunite with his wife and children without delay.
Seeing black smoke surge through the steamboat's tall forward stack, and heating the shrill sound of its steam whistle, he began running madly across the wooden planks of the pier, forcing his way through a wave of passengers who had disembarked from the steamboat Richmond. Apprehension mounted and quickly turned to frustration.
Too late. He had missed his boat.
The boarding ramp had been laid on the pier by dockworkers, and the ropes that had moored the boat to the pier were being pulled aboard by her crew. Only a few feet separated the hull from the dock. The man was tempted to jump the gap. But one glance at the ominous, frigid water and he quickly changed his mind.
The captain was standing in the open door of the wheelhouse, staring at the late arrival. He smiled and shrugged. Once a boat cast off and left the dock, no captain ever turned back for tardy passengers. He threw the disappointed ticket holder a brief wave, stepped into the wheelhouse, and closed the door, happy to return to the warmth of the pot-bellied stove beside the big steering helm.
The man on the pier stood there panting, his normally white face turned crimson. He stomped on the planking of the pier to shake the crust of ice from his feet as he watched Long Island Sound's fastest steamer slip into the East River, her side-paddle wheels churning the gray-green water. He failed to notice a dockworker, who moved beside him, puffing on a pipe.
The stranger nodded at the departing boat. "She leave without you?" he asked.
"If I had arrived ten seconds earlier, I could have jumped aboard," the stranded passenger answered slowly.
"There's ice forming on the Sound," said the dockworker. "A miserable night to be makin' a passage."
"The Lexington is sturdy and fast. I've booked passage on her a dozen times. I'll wager she'll dock in Stonington by midnight."
"Maybe so, maybe not. If I was you, I'd be thankful to stay warm on land till the next boat leaves in the mornin'."
The man gripped the carpetbag under one arm and shoved his gloved hands deep in the pockets of his long coat. "Curse the luck," he said gruffly. "Another night in the city is the last thing I wanted."
He took one last look at the steamer making its way upriver through the cold, forbidding water, then turned and walked back to the terminal, unaware that those few feet between the dock and the hull of the departing boat had spared him an ugly and violent death.
"I'd have sworn that crazy fool was going to jump for it," said Captain George Child.
The pilot of the Lexington, Captain Stephen Manchester, turned without taking his hands from the helm. "A mystery to me why passengers wait until the last minute to board."
Child stepped to the front of the wheelhouse and peered at a thermometer that was mounted on the exterior window frame. "Barely four degrees above zero. She'll hit a good five degrees below before this night is over."
"We'll see ice before we dock in Stonington," said Manchester.
"The old Lex is the strongest boat on the Sound." Child pulled a cigar from his coat pocket and lit it. "She'll see us through."
A veteran ship's officer with four years' experience in steamboats traveling the Sound, Child routinely served as master of Mohegan, another of the passenger line's steamers. But this night he was substituting for the boat's regular master, Captain Jacob Vanderbilt. The brother of Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who was in the early stages of amassing a fortune in ship and rail transportation, "Intrepid Jake," as he was called, had a reputation that bordered on the foolhardy. He often drove the Lexington on her runs across Long Island Sound at a furious rate. Fortunately for Jake, as it turned out, he was home with a nasty head cold and had no choice but to turn over his command to Captain Child.
Unlike Jake Vanderbilt, George Child was a cautious skipper who rarely took chances. He stood by Manchester as the pilot concentrated on navigating the Lexington through the dangerous tides of Hell Gate. From there, the tortuous narrows of the East River widened slightly until the boat passed Throgs Neck and steamed into the often treacherous waters of the Sound.
He left the comfortable heat of the wheelhouse and made a brief inspection of the cargo. The space beneath the promenade deck was packed with nearly 150 bales of cotton, some piled within a foot of the smokestack casing. For some strange reason Child failed to be concerned about the heavy concentration of inflammable cotton stacked so close to the casing that had caught fire only a few days before. So long as the necessary repairs had been made, he chose to ignore the potential hazard.
The rest of the cargo, in wooden crates, was stowed around the shields surrounding the engine. Satisfied the cargo was tied down properly and would not shift under the onslaught of heavy waves, he dropped by the cabin occupied by Jesse Comstock. The boat's clerk was busily counting the money taken in from the passengers, who paid for their meals in advance. Child did not interrupt Comstock's concentration, but stepped to a hatch and dropped down a ladder into the center section of the boat, where the engine and boilers were mounted.
The Lexington was powered by one of the most efficient steam engines of her day, built by the West Point Foundry. This was a vertical-beam engine, commonly called a walking beam, activated by a forty-eight-inch-diameter steam cylinder with an eleven-foot stroke. The engine's piston rod was connected to a long shaft that drove the forward pivot on the walking beam, converting the up-and-down thrust to the aft shaft that powered the crank that turned the Lexington's big twenty-three-foot-diameter paddle wheels with their nine-foot sweeps. Her boiler furnaces were originally designed to burn wood but had now been modified to take coal. When a full head of steam approached the red line on her pressure gauges, she cut the water at close to twenty-five miles an hour, faster than most Confederate blockade runners two decades later.
Courtland Hemstead, the boat's chief engineer, was examining the quivering needles on the dials of his brass steam gauges when Child tapped him on the shoulder. "Soon as we pass Sands Point, Mr. Hemstead, pour on the coal," Child said over the roar of the boilers and the sound of steam. "I want a fast run."
"'Through by daylight,' that's our motto," Hemstead said, pausing to spit a stream of tobacco juice into the bilge. "Too bad Captain Jake came down with the fever and you had to leave your fireplace for a run this night."
"I'd rather sail in January cold than a November storm."
"Cold is the last thing I worry about down here by the boilers."
"Enjoy it while you can," Child said, laughing. "When summer comes, you'll be sweating in Hades."
Hemstead turned and began shouting orders to firemen Benjamin Cox, Charles Smith, and two other stokers, as they shoveled coal into the fire boxes of the big boilers. Child enjoyed the warmth for a minute or two longer before climbing back up the ladder and making his way to the captain's cabin to wash up for dinner with the passengers.
Manchester turned the wheel over to his helmsman, Martin Johnson. He wiped the glass, which had begun to mist from the inside, and peered at the beacon on Kings Point. "Three degrees to port," he said to Johnson.
"Coming three degrees to port," Johnson acknowledged.
Manchester picked up a telescope from the forward counter and peered at a schooner that was approaching on an opposite course to port. He noted that she was heeled to the leeward from a brisk breeze. He put the telescope back and studied the Sound ahead. The sun had dropped behind Manhattan Island in their wake and darkness was settling over the water. What little ice he was able to see was caked mostly on the calmer surface around inlets of the shoreline. There was no apprehension as he stared over the blackening water. Now that they were in the open Sound, the trickiest part of the voyage was over, and he began to breathe a little easier. He felt safe on the Lexington. She was a stout boat, fast and ruggedly built for heavy weather.
Her keel had been laid by the shipyard of Bishop and Simonson of New York on a warm Monday in September of 1834. Unlike later steamboats that were designed by men who drafted detailed plans, a wooden model of the hull was carved and altered to the whims of Commodore Vanderbilt until he was pleased by the results. Then, using the model as a guide, full-size outlines were drawn in chalk. Next, carpenters, exacting craftsmen of their time, cut and joined her timbered framework.
Later renowned as a man who revered Ebenezer Scrooge, Cornelius Vanderbilt stepped out of character and went overboard in making the Lexington the finest passenger vessel of the era. He lavished a considerable fortune on ornate teak deck railings, cabin doors, staircases, and interior paneling. A fancy lounge and dining saloon comprised the main cabin. All deck lighting, curtains, and furniture were of superb quality and could have graced the finest mansions of New York City.
The Commodore personally scrutinized every inch of her construction, and conceived a number of advanced innovations in her design. He insisted on the finest seasoned white oak and yellow pine for her beams and floor timbers. Integral strength was assured by a stress plan lifted from Town's Patent for Bridges. The hull was super-strong, with a heavy box frame, unusual for most ships before or since.
No safety feature was overlooked. Her smokestack was well cased through the decks, and cinders were passed through a wide pipe fitted in the hull that expelled them into the sea. No exposed woodwork was installed near the boilers or steam pipes. The Lexington even had her own fire engine, complete with pumps and hose. Three large lifeboats hung in their davits behind the paddle wheels along with a life raft that was tied to the forward deck.
The boat went into service on Monday, June 1, 1835, and was an immediate success. At first, she ran as a day boat between Providence, Rhode Island, and New York. Two years later, she was switched to the Stonington run. Her passenger accommodations were advertised as luxurious and expensive. Lady passengers were especially courted, Vanderbilt providing all the niceties they enjoyed. Food was superb and the service second to none.
Either Commodore Vanderbilt sailed under a lucky star or else he enjoyed an acute sixth sense. In December of 1838, Vanderbilt's toughest competitor, the New Jersey Steam Navigation and Transportation Company, made the Commodore an offer he couldn't refuse. They paid him $60,000 for the fastest boat on the Sound, and then spent another $12,000 refurbishing the interior and converting her boiler furnaces to burn coal. His brother, Jake, agreed to stay on as captain of the Lexington until the family's new boat was launched.
Manchester pulled a lever that rang a bell in the engine room and called down through a voice tube. "We're in the clear now, Mr. Hemstead. Your boys can shovel on the coal."
"As you wish, captain," the chief engineer replied loudly over the tube.
Smoke spewed out her tall stack, thickened and mushroomed. A white bone grew and arched up around the bows as the Lexington leapt forward. The water beneath her huge paddle wheels seethed and boiled.To manchester, she was like an unleashed greyhound. He never failed to be stirred when the big engine flexed its muscle and hurled the hull across the water as fast as if not faster than any other boat ever built.
He checked the thermometer again. Already the pointer hovered at zero.
Not a good night to stand outside, he thought. He glanced down at the water skimming past the hull, spreading into the wake, and couldn't imagine the horror of finding himself immersed in it this night.
Most captains of the passenger boats plying the Sound were not comfortable mingling with the passengers and remained aloof in the wheel-house or their cabins during most of the trip. But George Child was a warm and friendly man. He felt it was his duty to show courtesy to his passengers and reassure any, and there were a fair number, who were fearful of traveling on a steamboat.
As Child stepped into the main cabin fifteen minutes before the call to dinner was announced, he looked over the passengers, who were seated in groups, conversing sociably around the stoves. Job Sand, the tall, distinguished headwaiter, moved around the cabin serving refreshments. Although Sand was white, the other five waiters, the kitchen help, Joseph Robinson, the boat's esteemed chef, and Susan Holcomb, chambermaid, were all black.
Without checking the boarding list, Child guessed there were approximately 115 passengers who had paid the $1 fare, meals extra. Deck passage was 50 cents, but there were no takers tonight. Counting his crew of 34, there were almost 150 men, women, and children on board the Lexington for the run to Stonington. It was as though the boat held a miniature city.
Several card players were seated at the tables, quietly engrossed in their game. Two well-known Boston comedy actors, Charles Eberle and Henry J. Finn, kept the conversation lively as the cards were dealt. Never ones to ignore an audience, they had generously offered to act out a scene from their new play after the passengers had dined. Peter McKenna, a businessman from New York, won the first pot.
Mothers and fathers gathered on the sofas and entertained their young children with stories and toys purchased in the city. Mrs. Russell Jarvis, described as a woman of uncommon beauty, kept her two lively daughters occupied by counting beams from the lighthouses rising around the danger points of the Sound. James Bates scanned a newspaper while his wife read aloud from a book of poetry to their young boy and girl. Parents with two children seemed to be the rule on board the Lexington this Monday. William Townsend was giving his wife a holiday by taking their two girls on a trip to Boston.
On a more somber note, the funeral party of Harrison Winslow were sitting quietly off to one side of the cabin by themselves. His widow, Alice Winslow; her father-in-law, William Winslow; and Harrison's brother, John Winslow, were accompanying the body, stowed in its coffin with the other cargo belowdecks, for burial in Providence. On the opposite end of the cabin, Mary Russell giggled happily with Lydia Bates, a young woman her age. Mary had been married the day before in New York, and was returning to her home without her new husband to break the news to her parents.
A party of merchants stood around the stoves discussing business and debating politics. Banker Robert Blake politely disagreed with business proprietors Abram Howard, William Green, and Samuel Henry over the New York bank's tightening of interest rates. John Lemist, treasurer of the Boston Leather Company, had nothing good to say about the bankers, who had recently charged his firm a high rate of interest on a loan to increase inventory.
The lounge was heavily attended this trip by sea captains, who had made port after months at sea and were traveling to their own firesides and their cherished loved ones. Captains J. D. Carver, Chester Hillard, E. J. Kimball, David McFarland, John Mattison, Theophilas Smith, and Benjamin Foster, who was returning from a three-year voyage to India, took turns swapping sea tales with each other.
Other notable passengers included Dr. Charles Follen, a respected professor of German literature at Harvard College, and Adolphus Harnden, of Harnden's Express, who was transporting $20,000 in silver coin and $50,000 in bank notes for the Merchants Bank.
Dinner was served at 6 P.M. by Job Sand and his staff of waiters. Chef Joseph Robinson and his assistant cooks, Oliver Howell and Robert Peters, offered passengers a choice between mutton with boiled tomatoes and baked flounder in a wine sauce with rice.
Amid the clink of glasses and the soft murmur of voices engaged in small talk, none of the 115 souls assembled around the dining tables could have known that, except for one man seated among them, this would be their last meal on earth.
Shortly after 7:30, the first mate, Edwin Furber, came to the wheelhouse door and alerted Captain Manchester that the boat was on fire. Manchester immediately stepped outside and stared aft. Flames were coming through the promenade deck around the smokestack casing. He scanned the darkened shoreline and took a quick bearing. The boat was well past the beacon at Eatons Neck Point and approaching the lighthouse on Old Field Point, both on the Long Island side of the Sound. The lights of Bridgeport to the north appeared further away. He immediately took the helm from steersman Johnson and swung the wheel hard-a-starboard in a vain effort to turn the boat and beach her on Long Island.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Captain Child rushed into the wheelhouse. "We've a fire on board!" he shouted. "Set a course for the nearest land!"
"I'm bringing her about now," Manchester answered, "but the wheel is not answering the helm."
Together, the three men gripped the spokes and applied their strength in an effort to steer the boat toward safety four miles and twenty minutes away. Suddenly, the wheel spun out of their hands.
"She's not responding," Johnson muttered in dazed bewilderment.
"The fire must have burned through the port steering rope below the wheelhouse," said Child.
Now out of control, with the engines still turning, the Lexington began helplessly running in wide circles. Child leaned out the door and gazed toward the stern. The beautiful boat, once the pride of the Vanderbilts, was vomiting fire and smoke from her entire midsection. He realized with sickening certainty that his boat and everyone on it was lost.
Leaving Child and Johnson, Manchester ran outside and called to the deckhands to operate the fire engine and break out the water buckets. The deckhands appeared frightened and confused. They attempted to put the fire engine into operation but they couldn't seem to find the buckets. At that moment smoke poured into the wheelhouse. Child and steersman Johnson were forced out on the deck, choking and coughing from the deadly fumes.
Second Mate David Crowley rushed to the center of the boat and found flames leaping from several bales of cotton. At that point, the fire had yet to spread to the boat's woodwork. He organized the deckhands and the dining-saloon waiters into a bucket brigade and began throwing water on the growing holocaust. Short on buckets, they spilled the Merchants Bank's silver coins from their wooden crates onto the deck and hurriedly began filling the boxes with water and passing them on to the men nearest the flames. Their efforts made no headway as the flames spread with incredible speed. If cool heads had prevailed early on, the fire might have been contained. Now it became a moment born in hell.
Any hope of saving the boat had evaporated.
The blaze quickly forced Chief Engineer Courtland Hemstead and his men from the engine room before they were able to shut down the engines. Immune to the fire, the big steam cylinder kept the paddle wheels turning, making it impossible to launch the boats.
The Lexington surged on through the dark waters as if driven by some unearthly force.
The strength of the flames soon overwhelmed the firefighters. They retreated past the towering walking beam to the paddle-wheel guards. Since it was too late to make their escape, the crew on the forecastle deck were trapped by a wall of fire reaching up to the top of the smokestack.
To Captain Chester Hillard, who helped strip away the canvas covering the lifeboats, "The Lexington is a gone case."
Crowley stood by Captain Child and asked, "Sir, what is to be done?"
Child looked around at the fear etched on the passengers' faces and calmly replied, "Gentlemen, take to the boats." Then he walked aft to direct the launching of the lifeboats.
Twenty minutes before there were informal pleasantry and relaxed gaiety in the main cabin. Now the entire scene was one of horror. Utter confusion and terror swept the passengers. Calm gave way to the inevitable contagion of panic. As one, they made a frantic rush for the lifeboats, brushed aside the crew, who were attempting to ready them for launching, and took possession. Caught up in mindless panic, the passengers flooded into the boats as if they were lemmings; overwhelmed by mass frenzy, they unknowingly destroyed themselves.
Dangerously overfilling the boats, the passengers dropped them into the black water that was still swirling past, agitated by the thrashing paddle wheels. The boats, along with their helpless occupants, were immediately swamped and swept into the night.
The remaining passengers were left to fend for themselves, and none of them knew which way to turn. Few jumped into the water. Drowning was nearly as unthinkable as being incinerated. During the early nineteenth century, fewer than ten people out of a hundred knew how to swim. In any event they would have expired within minutes from hypothermia in the frigid water.
Captain Hillard rounded up a few deckhands and a small band of passengers, and directed them to throw overboard any cotton bales that had not caught fire. After a dozen were heaved over the side, Hillard and stoker Benjamin Cox climbed down and positioned themselves astride a bale, each facing the other. Their combined weight settled the cotton bale until only one-third of it was above the surface of the water. The wind was fresh and the current carded them away from the boat at a speed of a knot and a half.
As Hillard drifted around the stem, he noticed a lady, whom he took to be Mrs. Jarvis, shouting frantically over the railing. Somehow, one of her children had fallen overboard. The men passed the child so closely Hillard could reach out his hand and touch the little body. From its dress and long hair streaming in the water, Hillard could see it was a female. He also saw that she was already dead. Mrs. Jarvis beseeched him to pull her daughter from the icy water, but he was more concerned with saving his own life. This was a time when self-preservation prevailed before the cry of "Women and children first" became a worthy tradition of the sea.
Hillard turned away from the heart-rending scene, pulled out his watch, and calmly noted the time by the light of the fire. It was just 8 P.M.
The Lexington would take a long time to die.
An immense, billowing cloud of black smoke reached hundreds of feet into the sky, blocking out the stars. The main deck had fallen in, and the only parts of the boat the flames had yet to devour were the stem and bows forward of the capstan. Ten people still stood on the stem while thirty more milled around the forecastle, including Manchester.
"Shouldn't we jump or something?" a dazed Adolphus Harnden asked Captain Manchester.
"To do so would be to perish," replied Manchester.
"We can't just stand here and be burned to death."
"Every man for himself," Manchester said solemnly.
He turned away and lowered himself over the side onto a raft of debris. There were two or three other men on it already, and his added weight sank it under the water. He grabbed a piece of the railing that was under water and used it to pull himself onto a bale of cotton that was floating nearby. He found that passenger Peter McKenna had climbed aboard the bale first. Harnden, still on the forecastle, shouted to Manchester.
"Is there room for another?"
Before Manchester could answer, Harnden jumped, knocking McKenna off the bale and falling in the water with him. Ignoring Harnden, Manchester hauled McKenna back on the bale. Then he found a length of board that was floating past and began paddling away from the blazing boat. As had Captain Hillard earlier when abandoning the boat, he checked his watch. It was just midnight.
Lexington had burned for four hours.
Second Mate Crowley also reached a cotton bale empty of life. He pulled himself aboard, and with surprising presence of mind stuffed his clothing full of cotton to ward off the frigid night air. He was luckier than the others who had reached the temporary safety of the cotton bales. Without the added weight of a second body, he was able to lie the full length of the bale without immersing his legs and feet. Drifting with the current, he could do little but fight to keep warm and identify the different points of land as he floated past.
The most harrowing escape from the inferno was by stoker Charles Smith. He had just fallen asleep between shifts of firing the boilers when he was awakened by a friend, who informed him there was a fire. He quickly rushed to the engine room, attached the fire hose to the water and opened the valve. But he was unable to reach the end of the hose to spray water on the blaze. The smoke and flames drove him aft, where he intended to board one of the lifeboats. He found Captain Child standing by the davits that swung out the starboard lifeboat, and heard him shouting for Chief Engineer Courtland Hemstead.
In less than a minute, Hemstead appeared, his eyebrows and much of his hair singed away. "You wanted me, captain?"
"For God's sake, stop the engine," Child implored. "We can't launch the boats while we're underway."
Hemstead shook his head wearily. "The fire drove us from the engine room before I could shut down the pressure valves. There's no going back in the inferno. I'm sorry."
Child nodded. "You did your best. Take your engine-room crew and see what you can do to hold back the flames for as long as it takes to get everyone safely off the boat."
Hemstead vanished in the smoke while Child stepped over the rail and tried to steady the lifeboat as it was lowered with a full load of frightened passengers. At that instant, someone cut the stern line and the boat swung outward, its bow plunging under the turbulence from the rotating paddle wheels. Child fell into the boat. Passengers, Captain Child, and the half-sunken boat drifted away and disappeared into the night, joining the dead bodies already floating in the wake of the Lexington.
Soon after, the engine finally stopped and the boat began to drift. By waiting another few minutes the doomed passengers in the swamped boats might have been saved. Only four souls would survive.
Smith climbed over the stem railings, kicked in three cabin windows, and using the sills as footholds, lowered himself on top of the rudder. After half an hour, a young boy climbed down beside him. Smith looked into the face white with fear. He pointed to a cotton bale floating nearby.
"If you want to save your skin, son, you'd better get yourself on that bale."
"I...I can't swim," the boy stammered.
"Hang on. I'll bring it closer."
Smith slipped into the freezing water, swam over to the bale, and got on top of it. Using his hands, he tried to paddle the bale close enough to the stem for the boy to jump aboard, but he could not make enough headway to reach the boat. At last, he regained the burning steamboat, and unthinkingly climbed back on board. This time, he found himself amidships, near the starboard paddle wheel. There he found a dozen people still hanging onto different sections of the smoldering remains. The flames had decreased to where the passengers were able to cling to the side by standing on the chines, an extended rib of the hull made of solid timber running fore and aft to keep the boat from rolling.
Smith found himself clinging next to Engineer Hemstead; Job Sand, the headwaiter; Harry Reed, a deckhand; and another stoker, George Baum. All around the burned hulk they could see the sea filled with a blanket of debris, ashes, and dead bodies of all ages. Smith clenched his jaws as he stared at the appalling reality of the tragedy. He choked off the bile rising in his throat and looked down at the water below his feet that waited patiently to engulf them.
At three o'clock, seven hours after the fire was discovered, the smoldering remains of the steamboat slipped beneath the cold waters of the Sound, accompanied by a great hissing sound as the cold water surged through the cremated interior of the hull. Steam mingled with smoke to create a pall that was slowly carded away by wind, and soon the flotsam drifted away, leaving the grave of the Lexington shrouded and unmarked by a merciless sea.
As the hull sank from under them, Smith, along with four others -- Harry Reed; George Baum; the actor and comedian Henry Finn; and the boy who had taken Smith's place on the rudder -- struggled onto a large piece of the paddle-wheel guard that had ripped away and bobbed to the surface after the ship sank. Like Manchester and Hillard before him, Smith also did his best to keep the others alive on the paddle-wheel guard. He shook and massaged them, and tried to force them to exercise, but overcome by the cold, the living had reached the limit of their endurance. They died one by one and rolled into the water.
Smith, a tough drinker and brawler when ashore, stared at the devil and shook his fist.
The unnatural glare of the fire across the dark water was seen from the Long Island and Connecticut shores. The flames shot up in huge columns, lighting the water for miles around.
William Sidney Mount, an artist of some renown for his paintings of Long Island country settings, witnessed the calamity and described how local mariners struggled to sail through pack ice clogging ports and inlets. Fishermen, thinking they might rescue victims while the steamboat was only two miles away, set out from their harbor in the bitter cold. But just when they thought they were within hailing distance of the flaming wreck, the winds and the tides shifted, sweeping the Lexington back into the middle of the Sound. Defeated by the whims of nature, the intrepid fishermen had no choice but to return home, the water being too rough for them to venture into the Sound.
Captain William Tirrell, of the sloop Improvement, sighted the burning pyre, but failed to offer assistance, claiming that he thought the steamer had her boats, and he was afraid that if he stopped he would lose the tide coming into the harbor. Like Captain Stanley Lord of the California seventy-two years later, who was accused of standing by while the Titanic sank, Tirrell was denounced as a cruel and heartless man. Because of his alleged indifference to the suffering of the passengers on the Lexington, he came within an inch of having his master's papers revoked. But later studies showed that he was a good twelve miles distant and facing a contrary wind. Investigators considered it doubtful that he could have reached the stricken vessel in time to save its ill-fated passengers had he tried.
Discovering the steamer on fire, Captain Oliver Meeker of the sloop Merchant tried to sail his vessel from the pier at Southport. But the combination of a shallow harbor and a falling tide caused the Merchant to run aground.
Captain Hillard and Benjamin Cox had drifted about a mile from the Lexington when she went down. A scattering of clouds strayed over the mainland and a bright moon illuminated the Sound. The night air was incredibly cold, and the men tried to keep warm by whipping their hands and arms around their bodies. They were as miserable as two humans could get. Then, as if ordained to multiply their agony, a large swell overturned their cotton bale. Plunged into the frigid water, Hillard and Cox struggled to climb on the opposite side. Losing the paddle was a double blow. Besides employing it as a means to keep warm through exercise, they had found it useful for steering against the tide. Now the bale became uncontrollable and rolled heavily under the onslaught of the waves.
Cox had abandoned the boat wearing only a flannel shirt, loose-fitting pants, boots, and a cap. An old mariner, Hillard had wisely worn his heavy woolen pea jacket. He gave Cox his vest, and then rubbed the passenger's arms and legs, beat him on the body, and made every attempt to keep his blood circulating.
"I want to die," Cox suddenly announced.
"You talk like a crazy man," said Hillard. "Do you have a wife and family?"
Cox nodded drunkenly. "A fine wife and six children."
"They will suffer miserably without their father. You cannot give up hope. Think of them waiting for you at home."
Cox did not answer. He seemed to have lost all desire to live.
Hillard did not realize it at the time, but his efforts at keeping Cox alive no doubt prolonged his own life as well. "Damn you, Cox," he snapped. "Do not let yourself die. Hang on for God and your family."
Cox appeared not to hear. He was beyond caring. The cotton bale slewed broadside in a trough before being struck by the next wave. Hillard somehow clutched the bale with hands numb of all feeling, fighting to hang on as the bale was pitched and tossed crazily.
His body limp with apathy and insensibility, Cox slipped off the bale and Hillard saw him no more.
Hillard's ordeal was very nearly an exact replay of the drama acted out on Captain Manchester's cotton bale.
Manchester's partner, McKenna, complained constantly about the bitter cold. Then as the icy water soaked his skin and the frigid air sucked the life from his body, he babbled about his wife and children, how he had kissed them the morning he left home.
"You'll be with them this time tomorrow," Manchester gamely assured him.
"No, I fully expect I'll die from the cold."
"Move about, man," Manchester implored, trying to encourage McKenna. "Get your blood flowing. Wave your arms, kick your legs, anything to keep warm."
"What good will it do?" mumbled McKenna. "We're both going to perish."
"Speak for yourself!" Manchester suddenly snapped. "I'll be damned if I'll give up."
Like Benjamin Cox on another cotton bale less than a mile away, McKenna appeared not to hear and went silent.
Manchester had heard many tales from ocean mariners about shipwrecked sailors who lost the will to survive. Discipline, they swore, was the key to survival. Too many mariners who were forced to abandon their ships expired out of lethargy and hopelessness. He could see it happening before his eyes. McKenna did not appear to care whether he lived or died. Staying alive to keep his wife and children from having to survive without a husband and father seemed the farthest thing from his mind.
Manchester could do nothing but watch helplessly as McKenna gave in to fate. He died shortly after the Lexington sank. His body fell backward, his head hanging partially in the water. The first heavy wave that struck the bale washed him off. For almost half an hour, he floated alongside Manchester, the moonlight reflecting on his white face and hands, before he finally drifted out of sight.
The agonizingly cold night came and passed, a night of torment that never seemed to end. With the coming of the sun, the sea turned smooth, and Captain Meeker of the Merchant, who had labored through to dawn, unloading cargo to lighten his vessel, was finally able to work his sloop off the sandbar with the incoming tide and set sail into the Sound.
Perched on his cotton bale, Hillard sighted the Merchant at about noon and wildly waved his hand to attract the attention of those on board. Captain Meeker smartly turned his sloop toward Hillard and came alongside. The helping hands of the crew pulled the half-frozen survivor over the side, where every courtesy was paid to him. He was taken below, where damp clothes were replaced with warm blankets, and he was placed in front of a stove while being fed cups of coffee laced with whiskey.
Next to be rescued was Captain Manchester. Nearly insensible from the cold, his hands frozen, he managed to insert his handkerchief between his rigid, unfeeling fingers and wave it feebly in a light breeze. Observed by Meeker's alert crew, he was soon thawing out beside Captain Hillard in the galley of the Merchant.
At two o'clock in the afternoon, fireman Smith, his hands and feet badly frostbitten, was barely conscious when he was spotted by Captain Meeker and picked off the paddle-wheel guard. All three men suffered from the effects of the exposure to extreme cold, but all recovered in time to testify at the coroner's inquest. Captain Meeker also retrieved two bodies from the water before heading back to Southport.
The most remarkable story of survival was that of Second Mate David Crowley. Luckily, his bale did not capsize or roll heavily with the sea, enabling him to burrow a nest into the center of the cotton. With his clothing stuffed with cotton until he looked like a fat snowman, he kept from freezing to death. Unseen by Captain Meeker's crew, Crowley suffered all day Tuesday and through the night. Not until nine o'clock Wednesday night did his floating home-away-from-home drift against an ice pack along the Long Island shore.
Afraid he might fall through into the frigid water, Crowley crawled across the ice on his stomach until he reached land. Then he stumbled nearly a mile to a house and rapped on the door with the last of his strength. The residents, Matthias and Mary Hutchinson, thought they were looking at a bloated dead body, dressed only in bulging light pants and a shirt, and with a bared head. They were astounded when the warmth of the house and their vigorous massage of his limbs brought Crowley back to life. He had suffered forty-eight hours of freezing cold on his floating cotton raft and had drifted over fifty miles.
Shortly after his miraculous survival, the owners of the cotton on board the Lexington presented Second Mate Crowley with the same bale that had carried him to land. He had it transported to his home in Providence, Rhode Island, where he kept it standing in his living room for many years. When the price of cotton skyrocketed during the Civil War, Crowley sold his bale for charity. From it sprang the famous Lexington brand of cotton cloth.
There were other intriguing sequels to the burning of the Lexington.
Lithography was becoming a popular profession in the 1800s. People throughout the country bought lithographs from their general stores and hung them in their living and dining rooms. For the price of a few pennies, the public came into the habit of changing the colored lithographs on the wall every week, especially when the subject that was illustrated struck their fancy.
Right after the burning of the Lexington, a young artist, struggling to launch a lithography studio, was contracted by the New York Sun to produce a lithograph of the disaster. Working night and day, he turned out his masterwork in just sixty hours, and splendiferously titled it:
THE AWFUL CONFLAGRATION OF THE STEAMBOAT LEXINGTON IN LONG ISLAND SOUND, MONDAY EVE, 13TH JANUARY 1840 BY WHICH MELANCHOLY OCCURRENCE OVER 100 PERSONS PERISHED.
Appearing in the New York Sun's extra edition, the portrayal of the frightful catastrophe became a sensation and hung in almost every home in America. Considered a breakthrough in journalism, the use of graphics to illustrate a hot news story quickly became a traditional style that is with us today in newspapers and magazines.
The young artist's reputation was made, and he went on to become world famous. If the tragedy of the ill-fated Lexington did nothing else, it gave the country the remarkable talents of Nathaniel Currier, who in seventeen years would join forces with another artist/lithographer, James Merritt Ives, to produce evocative color lithographs that became the illustrated soul of early America.
The man that arrived late at the dock and who wisely decided not to make an attempt to jump onto the Lexington read of the disaster in the extra edition of a newspaper late the next morning. He could not believe his luck. If he hadn't been delayed because of an argument with his editor, Park Benjamin, over editorial changes in his poem The Wreck of the Hesperus, set for publication in the World newspaper, he certainly would have been one of the 150 frozen bodies floating in the Sound.
He folded the newspaper, set it aside, and asked the waiter for a sheet of the hotel's stationery and an envelope. After the dishes were cleared, he began writing his wife and father to inform them their husband and son, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, was still alive and well in the restaurant of a New York hotel.
Captain Joseph Comstock was appointed by the Transportation Company to proceed to the scene of the disaster and search for the bodies of passengers and crew, and to recover any luggage and company property. The steamboat Statesman, Captain George Peck commanding, was chartered for the recovery operation.
Comstock's first problem was to determine the approximate position of the Lexington when it caught fire and later sank. Witnesses to the flames on the water gave conflicting testimony. Some reported seeing the burning ship off Eatons Neck Point, others put it in the middle of the Sound off Crane Neck Point. The lighthouse keeper at Old Field Point claimed he saw the flames vanish about three o'clock in the morning about four miles to the north of the lighthouse and slightly west. The depth of water was judged to be twenty fathoms.
After two days of searching, only seven bodies were discovered, including the two pulled from the water by Captain Meeker of the Merchant. Numerous sections of wreckage washed up ashore. The nameplate on the wheelhouse, two feet in length with the entire word Lexington, and a swamped lifeboat, were found and retrieved, along with several pieces of luggage.
The weather during the search was intensely cold, the temperature holding at four degrees below zero. The sudden accumulation of ice along the shore rendered further efforts hopeless. Captain Comstock called off the search and ordered the Statesman back to New York with its pitifully small cargo of dead. The recovery operation was especially bitter for Comstock. One of those lost, whose body was never recovered, was Jesse Comstock, clerk of the Lexington, the captain's brother.
The coroner's inquest threw blame in every direction. The jury censured the steamboat's owners for maintaining a dangerous ship and denounced them for transporting inflammable cargo on a steamboat carrying passengers. They criticized the state steamboat inspectors for ignoring gross safety violations, and the dockworkers for loading combustible cargo next to a heat source. They accused Captain Child and his dead crew of the Lexington of dereliction of duty, while strangely exonerating Captain Manchester, Second Mate Crowley, and fireman Smith from all blame.
The verdict was that the Lexington was a firetrap. The casing around the smokestack ignited a fire that was communicated to the cotton bales stacked around it. No one was indicted, convicted, paid a fine, or lost a license.
All that remained were hearts overwhelmed with grief. The burning of the Lexington left ninety grieving widows and nearly three hundred fatherless and motherless children. For all but five of the dead, there would be no tomb.
An item from a weekly paper, the Long Islander,
Huntington, New York.
September 30, 1842. THE LEXINGTON. The wreck of this ill-fated vessel has been raised to the surface of the water, but, one of the chains breaking, she again sank in 130 feet of water. The attempt is again in progress. The eight hundred dollars recovered from her were not in bills, as before stated, but in a lump of silver, weighing thirty pounds, the box having been emptied on the deck to be used as a bucket for throwing water on the flames.
Copyright © 1996 by Clive Cussler