June 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 4
Three decades of his life had been devoted to a single passion—a passion that took him to the very pinnacle of success. then the era he had helped to create began to fade, and one could see in his face an awareness of the onrushing winds of change. The year was 1855, and the burst of genius and energy which had made America, for a time, the greatest maritime power in the world was being drowned by forces beyond anyone’s ability to control.
Three decades of his life had been devoted to a single passion—a passion that took him to the very pinnacle of success. Then the era he had helped to create began to fade, and one could see in his face an awareness of the onrushing winds of change. The year was 1855, and the burst of genius and energy which had made America, for a time, the greatest maritime power in the world was being drowned by forces beyond anyone’s ability to control.
From Nova Scotia, in 1826, Donald McKay had come to New York—his passage on a coaster paid with the savings of his mother and father and brothers—and at the age of sixteen he signed an indenture to Isaac Webb, the shipbuilder. The terms were harsh: he was to work from sunrise to sunset, six days a week, for $1.25 a day. As soon as he was released from the agreement, McKay took a job in another shipyard, and by night drew plans, studied mathematics, modeled hulls, and talked to the men who sailed the oceans of the world. By the time he was thirty-four he had his own shipyard in East Boston and was beginning to make a name for himself constructing packets: five years later, in 1850, he launched his first clipper ship, the Stag Hound; the next year the Flying Cloud came down the ways.
The clippers which Donald McKay and his fellow builders produced were not only the fastest ships afloat; they were incomparably beautiful—a reflection of the American’s love of speed and grace, of his preference for the new and daring over the old and established. Long, thin-waisted craft, towering above everything else in port, their bowsprits forming great arches along the bustling waterfronts, they could be spotted even by the greenest landsman. Once at sea, they were driven by as tough and skillful a lot of skippers as ever lived; until they reached Cape Horn and the savage battle that might last for weeks against the shrieking westerly gales, they carried every yard of canvas that could be spread —including, sailors said, the captain’s long drawers.
Donald McKay’s Flying Cloud, 1,783 tons, set sail on her maiden voyage from New York on June 3, 1851, with Josiah Cressy in command and his wife as navigator. In the Atlantic squalls the ship lost most of her top hamper and sprung the mainmast; a mutiny nearly broke out; then she ran head-on into screaming southwest winds and thick snow while rounding the Horn, and the men were sent aloft—up and up, one hundred feet above the dark, surging water—to make repairs while the ship rolled and tossed in the wild storm. But eighty-nine days and twenty-one hours later the ship came flying through the Golden Gate—a record east-west passage that would be equaled only twice by sailing vessels (once by the Flying Cloud herself). After unloading, she headed west again—this time to China for a cargo of tea—and when she returned to New York, only ninety-four days out of Canton, the city went wild, Captain Cressy was given a hero’s welcome, and Donald McKay’s name was on every merchant’s lips. But McKay was not satisfied.
In 1852 he built the 2,400-ton Sovereign of the Seas on his own account, since no one was willing to order so large a ship, and he gave her command to his brother Lauchlan. There was a public holiday in Boston when she was launched, another celebration in New York while she was being loaded for California, and when she arrived in San Francisco after a harrowing voyage, she showed a clear profit of nearly $100,000. The next year the Sovereign sailed from the Sandwich Islands to New York in eighty-two days, her log showing a run of 421 miles during one twenty-four-hour period—and this voyage was accomplished with a green, shorthanded crew and a sprung fore-topmast which prevented Lauchlan McKay from carrying all the sail he wanted. From that moment, world attention centered on Donald McKay and his ships. No other builder produced such a tonnage of clippers: no vessels were more successful than his. Instinctively, he gave them beauty along with strength and speed—even their names had music to them. In 1852, in addition to the Sovereign of the Seas, he launched the Bald Eagle and Westward Ho. In 1853 came the huge Great Republic, the Empress of the Seas, Star of Empire, Chariot of Fame, and Romance of the Seas. Yet none quite satisfied him: “I never yet built a vessel that came up to my own ideal,” McKay said; “I saw something in each ship which I desired to improve.”
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.