During the 1840’s and 1850’s America experienced its golden age in shipping and sailing.1 At the front of this era was Donald McKay whose innovative ship designs lead to the numerous sea speed records, some of which stand today. For most of the early 19th century American ship building consisted of merchant and cargo ships. It took a long time for these ships to sail across seas. With the increased speed came decreased time to wait for pay. Another need for increased speed was the California gold rush of 1849. People wanted to make the trip as quickly as possible in order to stake their claims. Donald McKay’s clipper ships enabled people to do that.
This paper investigates why Donald McKay is the father of American clipper ships. He was born in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, September 4, 1810.2 When Donald was sixteen years old he had the desire to learn the trade of ship building, so he went to New York. In 1826 New York was the worlds best shipbuilder and shipbuilding was America’s leading industry. McKay decided that in order to learn the trade he must obtain an apprenticeship. So he became an apprentice to Isaac Web who has appropriately been called the “Father of Shipbuilders”. This is because more successful master shipbuilders came out of Web’s shipyard than from any other place in America.3 At the conclusion of his apprenticeship he went on to work for Brown ; Bell. In 1832 packet building was the best and most readily available work in New York. The majority of these ships were built at Isaac Web’s, Brown & Bell’s, and Smith ; Dimon’s. At this time McKay was what would be called a free lance ship wright. McKay then married Albenia Martha Boole the eldest daughter of John Boole.4 At this time McKay then went to Newburyport and formed a partnership with William Currier.
They formed the firm Currier & McKay and built the Courier. This was McKay’s first real production as designer and builder of a ship. The Courier was built for the coffee trade between New York and Rio de Janeiro and was sold to Andrew Foster ; Son.5 Their firm soon dissolved and McKay then become connected with William Pickett and formed the firm of McKay ; Pickett. Under this name they built the New York packet ship St. George. This was the first of the Red Cross Line. This line would become famous ten years later for the clipper ship Dreadnaught.6 After he dissolved his partnership with Mr. Pickett McKay left Newburyport for the shipyards at Boston to work with Enoch Train.
In Boston McKay started to build packet ships. Packet ships are ships that are smaller the clippers and were meant to carry both passengers and cargo at the same time. They were ships designed for strength, speed, stability at sea, ease of handling, easy rolling, beauty of model, and comfort for the passengers. It took numerous years and even more poor ships to attain all of these characteristics. In 1849 packets were either one or two decked vessels with a poop-deck aft and top-gallant forecastle forward. The cargo was usually stored in the lower hold with some light freight going between decks if the cargo was a large one. The cabins for passengers were located towards the front of the ship with the kitchens in the back. The freight on these ships was mostly Virgin Turpentine and Pitch. The other things consisted of food, tobacco, lard, cheese, oil cake, woods, and staves. Anywhere from $7,000 to $15,000 could be made on a single voyage. Every voyage was insured in full which meant that as much as $30,000 of insurance would be carried on the hull of each packet. From about 1820-1848 American packets had seized a monopoly of North American trade.7
In January of 1845 the first clipper ship was launched from the Smith ; Dimon yards. The Rainbow, was the initial three-masted clipper ship.8 Although Donald McKay didn’t originate the clipper he was the man who made it famous. His advanced production of the extreme clipper class proved to be a notable contribution to America’s prestige as a maritime nation. With the creation and evolution of the California clipper ships came the establishment of the Atlantic seaboard as a leader in the art and designing of these ships. Many of Donald McKay’s ships have been written in history books for their accomplishments and achievements on the high seas. One of the most famous ships is the Flying Cloud. The Flying Cloud received recognition for the two voyages that it made from New York to San Fransico in under 90 days.9 A speed record for sailing vessels that still stands today. The reason that such a trip could be made in such a short time was due to its extremely long and narrow body design and the sharpness of the ends. It was famous at the time also because it meant that potential miners could reach California in half of the time that it used to take with packet ships. On July 31st the ship made a record run of 374 nautical miles or 433 land miles in a 24 hour period. That is an average of over 15.25 knots per hour.10 This is a speed that would not be attained for another 25 years by steam ships. It has been said that the triumph of the Flying Cloud was not just one of the builder and the captain but a triumph of the United States upon the sea.
Another ship which Donald McKay gained acclaim for was the Lightening. The Lightening was built to sail in between London and Melbourne during the time of the Australian gold rush. She has the distinction of being the fastest ship ever built and had sharper ends than any other clipper ever built in the world.11 On March 1, 1854 the Lightening logged a distance travel of 436 nautical miles the longest authenticated distance ever traveled by a sailing vessel in 24 hours. During that day the Lightening averaged a speed between 18 and 18.5 knots per hour at times going as fast as 21 knots per hour. Not until thirty years later would steam ships be able to achieve such speeds.12
The James Baines was another ship built by McKay that set world records for speed sailing. On her maiden voyage this ship went from Boston to Liverpool in a record twelve days and six hours. During the winter of 1854 the James Baines made a run from London to Melbourne in just 63 days and made the return trip in just 69 and one half days. This trip is the equivalent to having traveled around the world. Upon writing to the owners of the ship Captain McDonnell stated that “Had I only had the ordinary run of winds I would have made the voyage in 55 days.” This is a record for sailing ships that still stands today. The most miles covered in a single day on that voyage was 423 miles.13 This is an average of over seventeen and a half knots per hour.
From the year 1864-1866 Donald McKay built vessels for the U. S. Navy during the time of the Civil War. His first three steamers the Trefoil, the Yucca, and the Nausett were quite unsuccessful only serving for about one month each before being decommissioned.14 His fourth attempt was much more successful though. The Ashuelot was entered into service on April 4, 1866 and served until 1883. At which time she was caught in a fire and burned under the command of Commander John C. Febiger.
After examining his life time and accomplishments I have come to the conclusion that Donald McKay is the father of American clipper ships because with his design of the extreme clipper he brought prominence to America by way of sea. The credibility gained with the record setting voyages of the Flying Cloud, the Lightening, and the James Baines not only made McKay popular as a ship builder but made America popular as a sea going nation.
Bailey, Thomas A. and Kennedy, David M. The American Pageant. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1994.
McKay, Richard C. Some Famous Sailing Ships and Their Builder Donald McKay. Riverside, CT: 7 C’s Press, Inc., 1928.
Clipper Ship, The, Funk ; Wagnells New Encyclopedia 1994 ed. USA, R. R. Donnelley ; Sons.,1994
Clipper Ship, Http://www.Britannica.com/bcom/eb/article/6/0,5716,24796+1,00.html. (1999-2000)
Donald McKay, Http://www.Britannica.com/seo/d/donald-mckay/. (1999-2000)