Fire at Sea!: The Steamer Lexington Disaster

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Hartford lithographers D. W. Kellogg & Co. published this view of the doomed Lexington sometime after Nathaniel Currier’s print was released. Survivors can be seen clinging to floating debris in the foreground. 2003.263.0

Problems seem to be plaguing the passenger ship business these days, whether it be the tragic loss of the Costa Concordia off Italy or the seemingly endless string of mechanical failures that have turned several recent pleasure cruises into anything but.

Some years ago, while writing an essay for a CHS publication on the Hartford lithographers, the Kelloggs, I came across one of their prints, entitled Awful Conflagration of the Steam Boat Lexington,… Trust me, fire at sea is one of the worst scenarios you can imagine, and while lurid is an apt description of the Lexington image, I started thinking about what else it meant. Rapid advances in technology frequently bring with them a mixed blessing, a combination of human achievement and hubris. The space shuttle is in many ways an apt comparison to the development of steam propulsion in the 19th century. New technology brings with it untested limits, and great expectations. And after a while a sense of complacency and routine; in short, a recipe for disaster.

Lexington incorporated cutting edge technology when built in the 1830s. She was among the largest, fastest, most luxurious of the steamers beginning to link major cities in the northeast such as New York, Providence, Hartford and, via a railroad link at Stonington, Connecticut, the city of Boston. So what factors caused or perhaps contributed to the “Awful Conflagration” on Long Island Sound the night of January 13-14, 1840?

For starters, both sailing and steam vessels of this period were constructed of wood, not iron or steel. For steamers, the resulting heat and sparks could prove dangerous indeed, as could the relatively crude boilers producing the steam. In the case of the Lexington, the boilers had been recently modified to burn coal rather than wood, resulting in higher operating temperatures and heat discharge through the iron smokestack.

While vessels like Lexington were primarily passenger carriers, they did transport cargo whenever possible. On the night of the disaster the vessel was carrying many bales of southern cotton, destined for the textile mills of southern New England. Survivors said the flammable cotton, stowed too close to the overheating smokestack, triggered the fire which, driven by the wind, soon spread through the wooden superstructure.

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A miniature of Captain George Child is part of the CHS portrait collection. 1972.11.1

Possibly contributing to the situation was the fact that the ship’s usual captain was ill. His replacement that night was thirty-six-year-old Rhode Island native George Child, a veteran seaman to be sure, but perhaps not as experienced with the Lexington. As the burning vessel was being abandoned Captain Child is reported to have fallen backward into a lifeboat, which was then crushed by one of the steamer’s still-turning paddlewheels, killing him instantly. The point of this is that, it turns out we have a number of artifacts related to Captain Child in the CHS collection, which came to us from a descendant.

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Among the articles recovered from Captain Child’s body was this pocket watch. 1972.11.3

Back to the story, once the fire started it quickly spread, leaving the vessel aflame and drifting powerless in the Sound. Passengers jumped into the freezing waters, buoyed by some of the cotton bales as well as fragments of the vessel. All told, only four of the estimated 143 souls onboard survived the ordeal; one passenger and three crewmen. Heartrending stories of heroism and death filled the press in the wake of the fire yet, unlike the Titanic disaster seventy-two years later, the Lexington tragedy yielded no new safety regulations.

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As with most shipmasters, Captain Child used a spyglass to aid in navigating vessels. It is unlikely he used this one aboard the Lexington, given its good condition. 1972.11.2

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