Way Back When... January 13, 1840
On Jan. 13, 1840, the Lexington, a paddlewheel steamboat that operated along the Atlantic coast of the northeastern United States between 1835 and 1840, sunk in Long Island Sound and was defined as a “calamity.”
Commissioned by industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt, the ship was considered one of the most luxurious steamers in operation, and began service on a route between New York City and Providence, R.I.
Only four survived the “appalling calamity,” as newspapers like the Richmond Enquirer described it. The 207-foot-long boat, en route from New York to Stonington, was laden with passengers and freight — including 150 bales of cotton on the upper deck. The fire broke out near the smoke pipe around 7 p.m. and, fanned by the strong wind, quickly spread to the cotton. All attempts to extinguish the flames failed, according to the book “Steamboat Disasters and Railroad Accidents in the United States” by S.A. Howland, published in 1846.
The ships’ overcrowded lifeboats were sunk almost immediately after their launch, leaving almost all of the ship’s passengers and crew to drown in the freezing water, with rescue attempts impossible due to the rough water and lack of visibility, according to “5 Epic Disasters at Sea” on cracked.com.
In 1837, the Lexington switched to the route between New York and Stonington, Conn., the terminus of the newly built railroad from Boston. Vanderbilt sold the ship to his competitor, the New Jersey Steamship Navigation and Transportation Company, in December 1838 for $60,000, at which time the Lexington was reputedly the fastest steamer on Long Island Sound.
An attempt was made to raise the Lexington in 1842. The ship was brought to the surface briefly, and a 30-pound (14 kg) mass of melted silver was recovered from the hull. The chains supporting the hull snapped, and the ship broke apart and sank back to the bottom of the Sound.
Today, the Lexington sits in 140 feet of water, broken into three sections. There is allegedly still gold and silver that has not been recovered. Adolphus S. Harnden of the Boston and New York Express Package Car Office had reportedly been carrying $18,000 in gold and silver coins and $80,000 in paper money at the time of the sinking. The silver recovered in 1842 is all that has been found to date.