One hundred and seventy-six years ago today, on January 13, 1840, the steamship Lexington burned and sank off Long Island Sound. This disaster, coming very early in the steamship era, was pretty shocking for its time: out of 143 people aboard the Lexington, only four survived–and three of those were members of the crew. In 1840 the “women and children first” tropes of the Titanic era were still far off in the future, but the Lexington illustrated the perils of what was coming in an era of increasing industrialization and mass transportation. Although this maritime disaster has been largely forgotten today, it carried a lot of lessons for nautical safety that would prove important in the future–but unfortunately most of them were unheeded at the time.

As is true of a lot of these ship disaster stories, the Lexington was quite a luxurious vessel for her day. She was originally commissioned in 1834 by shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made a lot of money backing new industrial transportation in the 19th century–he would later make millions on the railroads. Her mission was to sail between various ports in U.S. waters on the East Coast. Like all steamships of this time the Lexington was a paddle-wheel steamer. Her engines were originally built to burn wood, which as we’ll see proved to be an important detail. Outfitted with lavish teak fittings and a “great cabin” bedecked with the finest Victorian furniture and decor, Lexington was intended to cater to rich luxury-minded travelers, many of whom in the 1830s were not yet used to traveling on steamships. By 1838, after being sold and refurbished, she was sailing between New York City and Stonington, Connecticut. She was on this route at the time of the disaster. Lexington left her pier in the East River on the afternoon of January 13, 1840, carrying 143 people and cargo that included bales of cotton.

cornelius vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt, who commissioned the Lexington, was one of the preeminent “self-made men” of the 19th century, earning his fortune first in steamships and then railroads. His great-grandson Alfred went down on the Lusitania in 1915.

Later that evening, four miles off the north shore of Long Island, a crew member noticed that the casing around the ship’s smokestack was on fire. Crewmen tried to put out the blaze but to no avail. Furthermore, the fire had spread to the interior engine areas of the vessel, which made it impossible for them to shut down the engines and hence stop the churning paddle-wheel. Captain George Child decided to launch lifeboats anyway–a fatal decision, because one of them was sucked right into the paddle-wheel, killing Child and everyone else aboard. The two other lifeboats were lowered improperly. When the bales of cotton in the hold caught fire, Lexington was doomed. Panicked passengers began leaping into the icy sea, which in January was a recipe for sure death. Indeed only four people managed to survive. Three of them made it by clinging to floating bales of cotton, thus keeping them up out of the freezing water. The fourth hung to a piece of the shattered paddle-wheel. Lexington herself, ablaze from stem to stern, sank at 3:00 AM in 140 feet of water. A total of 139 people were dead.

The inquest into the disaster found more than enough blame and negligence to go around. Lexington suffered from a number of design flaws, but the worst factor was the improper conversion of the engine from wood-burning to coal-burning. Coal burns hotter than wood, but no additional measures were taken to reduce the risk of fire after the conversion. Additionally, the Lexington’s crew was slow to react; life preservers were hard to find; the launching of the lifeboats was botched; and, the final straw, a passing ship that could have rendered aid chose not to change course to help the Lexington for fear of getting behind schedule. All of these mistakes would eventually have been prohibited by safety regulations in the later 19th and 20th centuries, but at the time nothing was done. A broad regulatory regime for safety at sea was simply too much to ask in 1840.

In looking at the history of transportation disasters in the 19th century, it’s hard not to be struck by how so many of them were caused by factors that would seem to us today like basic common sense safety measures. The reality is that in a rapidly industrializing world, incremental progress in safety usually cost lives. The 139 victims of the Lexington disaster and their families learned that lesson all too well.

The header image is by Nathan Currier (of Currier & Ives), and in fact was one of Currier & Ives’s earliest mass-produced pictures. The photo of Cornelius Vanderbilt is by the Matthew Brady Studio. Both are in the public domain.