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Steamer Fire Took 107 Lives

Footnotes to Long Island History

STEAMER FIRE TOOK 107 LIVES

JAN. 11, 1951

by

Thomas R. Bayles


     It was on January 20, 1841, that the steamer Lexington left New York with a deck load of bales of cotton and 111 passengers, bound for Stonington, Conn. When the ship was off Eaton's Neck, Huntington at 7 P.M. the woodwork of the steamer was discovered to be on fire, and as it was impossible to subdue the flames, the steamer was headed for the Long Island shore.

       In a short time the tiller ropes were burned and the boat became unmanageable. The engine, however was kept running with a full head of steam.

       Three small boats were launched but were swamped soon after they hit the water, because of the speed of the ship. Each boat was loaded with passengers, all of whom were drowned.

       The fire was midway in the steamer so all communications were cut off between one end and the other, and the passengers crowed together in the bow until forced to jump into the water to escape the flames.

       The freight consisted of bales of cotton upon which some of the passengers tried to save themselves, but only four of the 111 were saved .Captain Chester Hilliard with a fellow passenger floated all night on a cotton bale in the freezing temperature. By morning the captain's companion fell off, overcome with the cold. Hilliard was picked up by the sloop, Merchant, which sailed out from Southport, Conn., to pick up any survivors.

       David Crowley drifted ashore on a bale of cotton near Wading River, after floating for two nights and one day down the sound during one of the most bitter cold spells of the winter. He worked his was ashore through porridge ice and crept across the beach on his hands and knees, with both feet and hands frozen. He saw a light in a house and worked his way along until he reached the door. He was taken in and it was four months before he was able to leave again, and then he was minus all his toes. He finally recovered and worked for many years as baggage agent on the Stonington steamer line.

       A few days after the disaster, Nathaniel Brown of St. James discovered a small boat in the ice off St. James at the head of Stony Brook Harbor. He found the boat full of ice in which were the bodies of two men solidly frozen. One of the two men was found to be a merchant by the name of Green from Providence, R,I., and in his pockets were banks bills amounting to $15,000. His relatives from Providence came up and claimed the money. Another boat went ashore near Rocky Point with three frozen bodies.

       The hull of the steamer drifted with the tide to a point off Crane's Neck where it overturned and sank in 19 fathoms of water. There was a safe aboard full of money which was never found as far as is known, although divers went down repeatedly for it.

       Captain Lewis S. Davis of Stony Brook, a child at the time made the following observations;

       "I well remember the burning of the Lexington. I was sliding down hill with a number of boys that night and the flames lit up the whole neighborhood so plainly we could see the steamer as she moved along and we watched the flames as they shot into the air. It seemed as though we could hear the seemed as though we could hear the screams of the people although the steamer was 15 miles away. There were plenty of bales of cotton upon which they could all have floated to safety if the cold had not been to intense.

       Shortly after the loss of the Lexington, Congress passed an act prohibiting the use of tiller ropes and requiring the use of iron rods in their place. Had not the tiller ropes been burned the vessel could have been brought into shore and many lives saved.

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