The Maritime Heritage Project

World Harbors from The Maritime Heritage Project in San Francisco.

News and Stories: San Francisco and Ports o'Call

Donald McKay

Brother to shipbuilder 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.

Donald McKay's Great Republic.
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.

Buy at
Launch of Shipbuilder Donald Mckay's Flying Cloud in Boston

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.

Buy at
Donald McKay's Sovereign of the Seas
The first ship to travel more than 400 miles in 24 hours.
Her dimensions 258.2 x 44.7 x 23.6. 2420 tons
Art prints are available by clicking on the image.

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.

Daily Alta California, San Francisco, California
July 17, 1853

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.

Buy at
Donald McKay Clipper, Anglo-American
Roy Cross

~ ~ ~ ~

"Master Under God"

Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.Captains exercised absolute authority at sea and so were dubbed "Master Under God" by early insurance writs, agreements with ship owners and passengers and the Board of Trade.

The captain is responsible for its safe and efficient operation, including cargo operations, navigation, crew management and ensuring that the vessel complies with local and international laws, as well as company and flag state policies.

All persons on board, including officers and crew, other shipboard staff members, passengers, guests and pilots, are under the captain's authority and are his ultimate responsibility.

The Annapolis Book of Seamanship.On international voyages, the captain is responsible for satisfying requirements of the local immigration and customs officials. Immigration issues can include situations such as embarking and disembarking passengers, handling crew members who desert the ship, making crew-changes in port, and making accommodations for foreign crew members.

Customs requirements can include the master providing a cargo declaration, a ship's stores declaration, a declaration of crew members' personal effects, crew lists and passenger lists.


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.

The Maritime Heritage Project.

Site Search


Ships in Port






World Seaports

Buy at
Dawn Chase

Buy at
U.S.S. Constitution

The Challenge.



Research Sites


Ship's Store

Books & Publications

Your story goes as far back
as you can imagine.

Monthly Updates

* indicates required

Clipper Ships. Donald McKay.
The Era of the Clipper Ships:
The Legacy of Donald McKay
Clipper Ships and Donald McKay.
Donald Gunn Ross III

Donald McKay.
Donald McKay and
His Famous Sailing Ships

(Dover Maritime)
Donald McKay.

Innside Nantucket.
Illustrated by Donald McKay.
Inside Nantucket.
Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr.

Donald McKay's Family.
Donald McKay's FamilyDonald McKay's Family.
Paul Hamilton

Donald McKay and
the Clipper Ships

(North star books, 12)
Donald McKay
Mary Ellen Chase

Ships, Shipping, Migration, World Seaports.

Coming to America.
Coming to America:
A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in American Life

Roger Daniels

The Maritime Heritage Project provides free information on world migration and exploration during the 1800s. Please consider supporting The Project by purchasing from our sponsors and advertisers or

Kindly California stories.