One weathered stone stood out, as it featured an image of a burning steamship. It had been carved in memory of Cortland Hempstead, the chief engineer of the steamship Lexington, who died when the paddle wheeler burned and sank in Long Island Sound.
I'd honestly never heard of the Lexington disaster, but seeing that stone made me curious. What I learned is that while sailing from New York City to Rhode Island, the ship caught fire off the north shore of Long Island 173 years ago tonight, on the evening of January 13, 1840.
A large cargo of cotton fueled the blaze. Some passengers pushed bales of cotton overboard and clung to them as improvised rafts. But almost everyone who fled the flames died in the frigid water.
The Lexington burned for hours, creating a horrific spectacle visible from shore. The ship went down after midnight. About 140 people had died. There were only four survivors.
The disaster happened a few years before news traveled rapidly by telegraph, but lengthy accounts of the Lexington's demise appeared in newspapers in late January 1840. This week in Newspaper Sunday we take a look back at the Lexington disaster.
Note: The following links lead to excerpts of newspaper articles. On the excerpt pages you can click the "persistent link" to view the entire page of the newspaper at the Chronicling America site of the Library of Congress.
- Bloomsburg Columbia Democrat, January 25, 1840: Headlined "Most Appalling Calamity," a Pennsylvania newspaper provided a detailed account of the disaster.
- Vermont Phoenix, January 31, 1840: A detailed account of the coroner's inquest provided many details of the disaster.
- Burlington Free Press, January 31, 1840: A poem about the Lexington was reprinted in New England newspapers.
- Rutland Herald, February 4, 1840: Stories about victims, such as an engaged couple, appeared in newspapers for weeks following the tragedy.
Related: Sinking of the Steamship Arctic
Photograph: Steamship Lexington depicted on a memorial stone in Brooklyn/Photograph by Robert McNamara
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