News and Stories: San Francisco and Ports o'Call
Brother to Laughlin McKay
Donald McKay (1810-1880) was a master shipbuilder, with his shipyard located on Border Street in East Boston. His company launched many of the fastest clippers in history, with Flying Cloud being the most famous.
A clipper ship is a large sailing vessel with three or four masts and square-like sails. The bow or front of the boat is wide and raked forward, allowing increased speed on the open ocean. The clippers were utilized for the New York-San Francisco run during the California Gold Rush, as well as trans-Atlantic routes. The clipper ships of the 1850s are an inspiration for today's Coast Guard cutters, which are designed for speed in rough seas.
In Boston, there are two significant memorials to Donald McKay. The first marker is a large obelisk that stands at Castle Island. When entering Boston Harbor by ocean, one passes by the conspicuous monument as it cannot be unnoticed. The other memorial is a small pavilion located at Piers Park in East Boston on Marginal Street. Thus, Donald McKay has been commemorated on both sides of the harbor for all ships to view. Also, McKay's House still stands atop Eagle Hill in East Boston on White Street. Following is an edited biography of McKay from Lamb's Biographical Dictionary of the United Stations (1903):
Donald McKay, shipbuilder, was born in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, September 4, 1810. He learned the shipbuilders' trade in New York City, settled in Newburyport, Massachusetts, as a shipbuilder, and in 1845 removed his business to East Boston, where he conducted a large shipyard. He built for Enoch Train several clipper ships for his line of Liverpool packets (Diamond Line) which were celebrated for their speed.
American Clipper Ship Great Republic
He also built many of the New England clipper ships for the California and Australian trade. He built the Great Republic, of 4556 tons, in 1853, at the time the largest merchantman in the world; the Flying Cloud, that made the run from New York to San Francisco in eighty-nine days, three days less than the Great Republic; the Sovereign of the Seas, 2400 tons, making 430 geographical miles in twenty-four consecutive hours and 3144 miles in ten consecutive days.
He constructed the model of a paddle-wheel steamer, exhibited in July, 1853, which he claimed would cross the ocean in six days. He constructed a number of U.S. Gunboats, including the light-draft monitor Nauset and the double-end gunboat Ashuelot, [Native American word meaning "A collection of many waters."] for service in the Civil War.
The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and in Australia in 1850, along with the importance of arriving at ports first with merchandise, created a demand for the fastest passages to both places. The repeal of the British Navigation Acts in 1849, opening the tea trade from China to London to foreign ships, gave a tremendous boost to the production of American clippers. Tea from China was a very profitable cargo and several clippers were specially built for the trade. The first arrivals in London of the new crop each year commanded the highest prices. The famous British clipper Fiery Cross, built by Chaloner of Liverpool in 1860, was the winner of the premium for the first ship home on no less than four occasions.
Donald McKay took the lead, producing first the revolutionary Stag Hound, then Flying Fish and Flying Cloud.
These were perhaps his most famous clippers, though his Sovereign of the Seas was a record-breaker. Built in 1852 for the Swallow Tail Line, Flying Cloud made a name for herself through the speed of her voyages on the New York–California run.
The last boat of his construction was the U.S. Sloop-of-War Adams, in 1874.
He retired to Hamilton, Massachusetts, in 1874, and devoted himself to farming. The beauty and speed of the clipper ships, Westward Ho, Flying Fish, Bald Eagle, Empress of the Seas, Staghound, Star of Empire and Golden Fleece gave him a world-wide reputation as a naval constructor. He died in Hamilton, Massachusetts, September 20, 1880.
September 26, 1851, Daily Alta California
Clipper Ships Again
Messrs. Editor of the Alta California —
Gentlemen: Allow me, through your columns, to return my sincere thanks to "one of the Villagers," for his attempt to enlighten me. My communication on the 24th was intended to correct an error of yours only, but to my surprise this morning I find the "Villagers" down on me in all directions, and I must say they are a little tender on the subject of "clippers."
I have no great desire for newspaper notoriety, bat as my "Villager" friend affirms that the passages of the Boston built ships do not equal those of New York build, which he enumerates. We will compare the time from port to port, and "figures never lie," you know. Not being able to obtain the passage of the Celestial, I leave her and the Witchcraft out of the comparison, and find the passage of the Sea Witch 97, Samuel Russell 109, N. B. Palmer, 109 days; aggregate, 315 days, making an average for New York ships of 105 days— Flying Cloud, 89, Surprise, 95, Staghound, 114 days; aggregate, 29S days] average for Boston ships, 99J days, making a difference of over 5 days in favor of Boston ships.
Mr. McKay, as "Villager" truly remarks, served his apprenticeship in New York, but removed to Boston and vicinity to complete his education. l am sorry to find my friend has exposed his ignorance of Yankee exports, for in addition to "clothespins," we are some on wooden buckets, pails and tubs, let for his punches. &c, that the "village" can't boast of, and as for the wooden nutmegs, a reference to his geography will show him that the land of wooden nutmegs, is several rods nearer to his "village" than to the "city of notions." For his information with regard to the Gamecock, she was at Rio Janeiro, June 29th, getting new masts, having fairly ran away from the spars she left New York with. The writer in the Herald is so perfectly savage that I cannot answer him, and would only recommend an application of Boston ice to his temples. ~ YANKEE
Adams Sentinel, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania
January 24, 1853
Scientific Prediction Fulfilled
The Boston Journal states that McKay, of the clipper Sovereign of the Seas, built in Boston, previous to sailing from this city (N.Y.), for San Francisco, in August last, addressed a letter to Lieut. Maury of the National Observatory at Washington, requesting a copy of the fourth edition of his Sailing Directions, for the use of the voyage. Lieut. Maury answered the letter, stating that if Capt. McKay would follow the directions laid down, the Sovereign of the Seas would be able to cross the Equator in the Pacific on or before the 25th day of October, and would reach San Francisco in one hundred and three days.
The Sovereign of the Seas crossed the line only 14 hours behind the predicted time, and dropped anchor in the harbor of San Francisco in one hundred and three days and two hours after leaving New York.
This prediction on a voyage of 17,000 miles is a forcible illustration of the benefits of modern scientific research.
July 17, 1853, Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California
Capt. L. McKay, the commander of the ship Sovereign of the Seas, has been presented with a handsome and valuable service of plate by the underwriters of New York, for his skill at sea, and safely getting his vessel in San Francisco after being dis-masted. On one of the pieces is inscribed the following:--
Presented by Atlantic Mutual Insurance Co., to Capt. L. McKay, of the ship Sovereign of the Seas, to express their appreciation of his skill and ability in fitting his ship at sea after having been dis-masted on the 12th October, 1852. The Sovereign of the Seas sailed from New York on 18th June for Liverpool.
September 7, 1853
London Nonconformist, London, United Kingdom
. . . In the new American clipper, the Sovereign of the Seas, the ropes which form the running rigging are of cotton, which is not only capable of a tighter twist, but is not liable to become deteriorated by friction in the same degree as hempen cords. After they have been in use, too, for years, they can be sold for nearly as much as the original cost. These ropes are quite smooth, and run with great rapidity through the blocks. The sails also of this vessel are of cotton, two sets of cotton sails costing only the sum paid for one set of linen.
A Review of the Minority Report, On the Navy Yard Question: With an Appendix, Containing Letters from Maj. General John A. Dix, Gen. Prosper M. Wetmore, Mr. Donald Mckay, and Professor Silliman
London Navy Yard Committee, New London Navy Yard
This reproduction was produced prior to 1923.