Donald McKay



Occupation 1

clipper ship designer

Occupation 2

Naval Architect




NA/New England region


Heroic Age of Sail (1816-1865)






Greyhounds of the Sea: The Story of the American Clipper Ship
Clipper Ship Era, The


Master shipbuilder� He moved to New York in 1827 to study the art and science of shipbuilding, and for the next several years he worked for the firm of Isaac Webb. Later he was employed at Brown and Bell, where he learned his trade in the construction of some of the famous packet ships of the day. Noting McKay's special talents, his employer Jacob Bell recommended him to William Currier, a New England shipbuilder, by whom McKay was employed to build ships at Wiscasset, Maine, and at Newburyport, Massachusetts.

Having demonstrated his skills, in 1841 Currier offered McKay a partnership, and his career as an independent shipbuilder was launched. Shortly thereafter McKay dissolved this partnership and formed the firm of McKay and Pickett with his new partner William Pickett at Newburyport where he built three ships. The last of these, the Joshua Bates, was built for the prominent Boston merchant Enoch Train, who was so impressed with the architectural qualities of the vessel that he invited McKay to move to Boston and build ships for his new Boston-to-Liverpool packet line. The move proved to be a fortunate one financially as the Irish famine of 1846 resulted in a dramatic increase in demand for passenger ships.

McKay now enjoyed prosperity, producing between 1845 and 1853 forty-nine ships, vessels that were noted for their speed, skillful design, and beauty. At first he concentrated on the sturdy packet ships that were fully rigged, with three masts and a four-to-one length-width ratio. These crafts were used for both freight and passenger service, and by the 1840s they were averaging more than a thousand tons in displacement.

Although McKay was a latecomer to building packet ships compared to contemporaries such as William Webb and Jacob Westervelt, he would soon match them in fame. In 1846 he built the Washington Irving, a ship with many innovations, including sleek lines and plush staterooms, that reflected McKay's architectural skill. One of the last of his packets, the Daniel Webster, made its appearance in 1850�

McKay was to make his greatest mark, however, in another form of shipbuilding. The sudden discovery of gold in California in 1848 and then in Australia in 1851 created a need for a faster sailing ship than the packets. The answer was the clipper ship. In the next five years McKay became the dominant figure in the brief but dramatic clipper ship era� McKay's most famous ship, the Flying Cloud, was built one year later. Despite its size of nearly 1,800 tons, it was the swiftest of all the clipper ships, setting a record of eighty-nine days from New York to San Francisco, a passage matched only twice, including once more itself. Surpassing the Flying Cloud in size but not in speed was another clipper, Sovereign of the Seas, [which] featured a main mast ninety-three feet high and, when fully rigged, carried over 12,000 yards of canvas sails. In the next three years five additional ships were completed. Four were similar in size to their predecessors. The fifth, the Great Republic, was an exception, displacing 4,500 tons, stretching 335 feet in length, and carrying four masts� Unfortunately, shortly after completion it was destroyed in a fire in New York Harbor. Because it was insured for only $200,000, McKay suffered a financial loss from which he never recovered�

With no ships on order during the brief but severe depression, he made an agreement with the British Admiralty to provide five hundred loads of timber for ship building. This led in time to a year's sojourn in Europe (1859-1860), where he observed the building of new ironclad ships. Returning to the United States, he tried to convince the U.S. Navy in March 1861 to begin a modernization program by ordering an ironclad corvette mounted with twelve nine-inch guns. When his proposal was rejected, McKay returned to Europe for two years. Belatedly the Navy Department saw the importance of armored ships powered by steam. McKay responded by converting his shipyard to build iron ships and marine and locomotive engines in 1863. In 1864 the Navy Department placed its first order with McKay to build steam-powered armored ships, and by the end of the Civil War he had built five such ships for them. Before he sold his shipyard in 1869, he had built several steamships and three sailing ships, including the Glory of the Seas that remained in service until 1923. His last building efforts, in the 1870s, were two wooden sloops of war for the navy that he constructed in a yard owned by another shipbuilder. Poor health forced his retirement in 1877 and he died three years later at his home in Hamilton, Massachusetts�

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