Faces From The Past-VII

PrintPrintEmailEmail

But by 1855 there was neither time nor opportunity to improve the clipper ships. Six extreme clippers had been launched in 1854—three at McKay’s shipyard—but none was ever laid down again in the United States. For too long America’s attention had been focused on the West. Young men whose minds and energies would have turned naturally to the sea a century earlier were engaged now in staking out claims and building towns. Steam was replacing sail; even in their heyday the clippers met more and more steam-powered craft, and were escorted in and out of port by stubby, snorting tugs. Man was beginning to achieve a mastery of sorts over the elements. The clipper had been his supreme, barehanded challenge to nature—a dare to come and do her worst.

For a few years the great ships held on. They were put to work hauling coal and coolies, guano and lumber: but before long they were rotting at dockside or in some lonely backwater anchorage. Donald McKay had seen this coming, and he turned his talents to steam and to building ironclads: but things were never the same with him again, and in 1880 he sold the famous shipyard. For a while he lived on a farm, and when he died in 1880 he was buried in Newburyport, just in sight of the ocean which his beautiful ships had ridden for those few glorious years.

—Richard M. Ketchum