Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Steamboat Lexington (1840)

Clive Cussler, in his 1996 book The Sea Hunters, covers in a series of essays his search for lost ships, and even a lost locomotive.

Each of the essays has the same formula. First, a fictionalized account of how the craft in question was lost (he writes it as if it were a story, inventing dialog and emotions, but the facts of what happened - that are known -are true. Then he jumps forward a hundred years or so, and tells the story of how he, and his organization NUMA (named after his fictional organization, but usually just him and a few friends) seek after the lost craft, and whether or not they find it.

The Sea Hunters features:

The Steamboat Lexington (lost in 1840)
The Republic of Texas Navy Ship Zavala (1842)
USS Cumberland and CSS Florida (1862, 1864)
CSS Arkansas (1862)
USS Carondelet (1862)
Confederate Submarine Hunley (1864)
Lost Locomotive of Kiowa Creek (1878)
HMS Pathfinder, U-21 and U-20 (1914, 1915)
Troop transport Leopoldville (1944)

The steamboat Lexington was lost on January 13, 1840. It had set out from New York for Stonington, Connecticut, where passengers transferred onto a railroad to continue their journey to Boston.

The pilot of the Lexington was Captain Stephen Manchester (the pilot is the man who sails the ship out into open water), the captain of the Lexington was George Child.

It was night, it was winter, it was four degrees above zero. There were 115 passengers aboard the ship. Shortly after 7.30 pm, the boat caught on fire, because cotton bales were stacked too near the smokestack, it was assumed. The ship's rudder was disabled, it was impossible to beach her on Long Island, some four miles away.

Lifeboats were launched....or rather attempted. The passengers didn't wait for the crew to help them (at least according to Cussler) the overloaded boats dropped into the Sound and capsized.

It took a little over four hours for the ship to burn itself out.

Ships from shore try to reach the vessel, but contrary winds prevent them. Captain William Tirrell of the sloop Imrovement will be vilified for not even trying to help.

Only four of the 115 people aboard the ship survived, the rest succumbed to hypothermia or drowning.

In April 1983, Clive Cussler went looking for the remains of the ship. Although there had been eyewitnesses to the fire and eventual sinking, they all placed the ship at different locations - some said it had been off Eatons Neck Point, others said it had been in the middle of the Sound off Crane Neck Point.

However, when Cussler started looking for, he was told there were stories that the ship had been raised. However, he searched insurance records which disproved the story.

Cussler studied the tales of the eyewitnesses and "placed his faith" in the story of the Old Field lighthouse keeper, who reported seeing the flames die out about four miles north of the Point and slightly to the west.

Cussler put together an expedition that searched a grid of four square miles in that approximate area.

And Cussler, and the crew of the boat he had chartered, found the Lexington. However, no one came forward to underwrite a recovery project, so the Lexington still remains at the bottom of the Sound.

According to Wikipedia (which does not mention it was Cussler who found the ship):
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.

Currier and Ives made a lithograph of the ship on fire, from an eyewitness's account. It would be their first major-selling print.

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