By Cliff McCarthy
Near the entrance to Belchertown’s South Cemetery is a large stone that marks the graves of two members of the Walker family. The lower half of the stone reads “Harrison J. O. Walker, Perished by the destruction of the Steamer Lexington on Long Island Sound, Jan. 13, 1840, age 18.” Who was young Harrison Walker and what happened to him?
At 4 p.m. on a blustery January afternoon with the temperatures falling near zero, the Lexington sailed out of Manhattan bound for Stonington, Connecticut. A cold snap had left the waters of Long Island Sound icy and dangerous. Captain George Child was in command of the steamer, substituting for the usual skipper who was ill, but Child was considered a capable veteran. The Lexington carried with her a cargo of 150 bales of cotton and nearly as many passengers. Some of the cotton was stored near the smokestack.
This was during the heyday of the commercial steamship, which had rendered the stagecoach obsolete, but had not yet itself been replaced by the railroad. The Lexington was the pride of the New Jersey Steam Navigation and Transportation Company. She was built five years before by Cornelius Vanderbilt and he had spared no expense. Measuring 207 feet from stem to stern, the Lexington was a side-wheeler, with two paddlewheels and the engine machinery amidships. Recently converted to accommodate a coal-burning power plant, she was fuel-efficient and 30 percent faster than other vessels of her type, capable of twenty-three miles per hour. Long and fast and strong, her motto was “Through By Dawn” to meet the morning train from Stonington to Boston.
Belchertown native Harrison Josiah Otis Walker would have taken dinner with the rest of the passengers at about 5:30 as the ship passed Sands Point on Long Island. He was the son of Nathaniel and Thankful (Morse) Walker who lived in the house at 33 Mill Valley Road, now located near the entrance to Cold Spring School. Harrison was the grandson of Captain James Walker, an early Belchertown settler and a respected veteran of the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars. It is unknown what purpose brought young Walker aboard ship that day, but most of the travelers were businessmen, as this was not the season for pleasure excursions. A passenger list published in the Hampshire Gazette reported a “Mr. Walker, of Baltimore, with Mr. [John W.] Kerle,” also of Baltimore. Could this have been a reference to our Harrison Walker?
Shortly after 7 p.m., about four miles north of Eatons Neck, the cry of “Fire” arose from the freight deck. Captain Stephen Manchester, piloting the craft at the time, saw flames billowing from the base of the smokestack and immediately steered toward the shore. Although the cause of the fire will forever be uncertain, it is suspected that the coal furnace, burning at a higher temperature than the stacks were designed to handle, overheated the chimneys and ignited the cargo. Cotton is highly flammable and the fire quickly grew beyond the crew’s ability to extinguish it. Within fifteen minutes, the tiller ropes burned through, leaving the ship without steering. The passengers were ordered to the lifeboats, but as they dropped to the surface in a panic, the lifeboats were immediately swamped by the wake of the ship itself, which was still plowing uncontrollably under a full head of steam. Passengers and deck hands began tossing cotton bales overboard to serve as rafts. Many people were in the water, using the bales to stay afloat, but the bone-chilling cold reduced with each minute their slim chances for survival. At about 8 p.m., the main deck of the Lexington collapsed, killing anyone left aboard. The fire burned itself out at about 10:30 p.m., but the hulk remained afloat until 3 o’clock in the morning when she finally went under.
Unaware of the disaster, no ship arrived to offer assistance until 11 a.m., when someone on the sloop Merchant spotted Capt. Chester Hilliard, a passenger on the Lexington, waving his hat and clinging to a cotton bale. Given the long hours in the icy water, it is amazing that anyone survived – yet, there were more! At noon, the Merchant picked up Capt. Stephen Manchester, the pilot of the Lexington, also floating on a bale of cotton. Two hours after that, fireman Charles Smith, was plucked from the Sound by the crew of the Merchant. A fourth survivor, second mate David Crowley, floated for an incredible 43 hours before washing ashore near Baiting Hollow, nearly 50 miles from the scene of the disaster! Then, he stumbled three-quarters of a mile to the nearest house before collapsing, severely frost-bitten. Ironically, the cotton – the fire’s main benefactor – saved all four survivors.
The disaster sent shockwaves through New England. Newspapers published various accounts of the incident and sensational stories abounded, keeping the incident in the public’s mind for many weeks. There were stories of mothers vainly trying to protect their children during the calamity, reports of boatloads of frozen bodies washing ashore, and of a doomed passenger whose Bible was open to a particularly poignant passage. Guards were posted on Long Island’s beaches to hinder the plundering of bodies, baggage, and other detritus that washed ashore. Souvenir shirts were made from recovered cotton bales to commemorate the grim event.
Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, having booked passage on the doomed steamer, was spared by his last-minute decision to remain in New York for a lecture. The event propelled the career of engraver Nathaniel Currier, not yet teamed with James Ives, whose depiction of the disaster graced a special edition of the New York Sun — an early example of the illustrated news story. This was the worst steamboat fire in the waters of Long Island Sound.
In the weeks after the disaster, the local papers also carried sad items announcing the deaths of Lexington passengers from places such as Greenfield and Barre, Mass. But for grieving Belchertown residents, there was only the following Gazette report, reprinted from the Springfield Republican:
“We are pained to learn that a young man by the name of Walker, who has a brother in this town, and whose parents live in Belchertown, was lost in the steamboat Lexington. This is the only loss from Hampshire county by the burning of that ill fated boat.”
This story and others like it can be found in Cliff McCarthy’s book, Mysteries of Belchertown’s History.