The Power behind the Throne
Ever heard of Albenia Boole? Probably not, but if it wasn’t for her, the glorious age of the clipper ships wouldn’t have been possible! Typical of a long line of women who were “behind the scenes”: such as James Madison would have been nothing without Dolly Madison. Turns out Edith Wilson ran the country (through clever deception) when President Woodrow Wilson had a paralyzing stroke. That Adolphus Greeley wouldn’t have ever come back from the Arctic if his army wife hadn’t terrorized the Washington D.C. crowd into sending a rescue ship. The examples go on and on.
The fame of her husband, Donald McKay was largely due to her influence.
Albenia Martha Boole was born in Jordan Falls, Shelburne County, Nova Scotia, September 8, 1815, and had lived across the Jordan River from Donald McKay’s childhood home. She was five years younger than Donald and they had known each other as children.
Her father, John, like many other men in that community, had been a farmer and shipbuilder. Their house also functioned as an inn for travelers. John Boole sold his house and land in 1831 and brought his family with him to New York City, where he took up shipbuilding. Two of his sons followed him into the trade and a number of other family members made the move to New York and were actively engaged as master shipbuilders, shipwrights, and artisans.
Realizing his daughter’s gifted abilities, John Boole saw to it that Albenia received a good education, which was somewhat unusual for that day and age, and Albenia became a schoolteacher. She excelled in mathematics, and, being a shipbuilder’s daughter, was in love with the sea and sailing ships. She possessed a thorough knowledge of the shipbuilding trade and could draft and lay off plans for ships as well as any man.
The social life of the shipbuilding community rarely strayed beyond familiar maritime circles. It was only natural and perhaps fate that Donald McKay, then twenty-two, soon fell in love with Albenia Boole, a shipbuilder’s beautiful and talented daughter.
In Albenia Boole, Donald McKay had met his equal. They soon were married.
The couple bought a little house on East Broadway, then considered to be one of the most desirable residential neighborhoods on the East side of New York. The Boole family was well-to-do and the money Albenia brought to the marriage, combined with her husband’s steady work and good wages, gave a firm foundation to the large family that was to come. Cornelius Whitworth, their first son, was born February 1, 1834.
Besides being his wife, Albenia would also become Donald McKay’s mentor and teacher. For McKay had become keenly aware of the gaps in his education, particularly in mathematics, that were detrimental to his plans and was resolved to overcome those shortcomings. Together in the evenings, under the light of a whale oil lamp, Albenia tutored Donald and in time he absorbed the mathematical lessons that were so crucial to his shipbuilding career. The lessons learned would be put to good use. Competition in the shipyards of New York for the packet trade was cutthroat. Each of the competing transatlantic lines desired to possess the finest and fastest ships. With the leaders went the bragging rights along with the most lucrative trade.
But Albenia was also her husband’s guide! Both of them went over seas to England and other European countries several times to absorb the technologies of ship building that were turning wooden clipper ships into steel torpedoes that could hold up the new invention in steam locomotion. They worked as a team to spawn design plans for extreme clippers that were the wonder of the world.
Regrettably, Albenia, after a short illness, died in December, 1848 and was buried in Newburyport, Massachusetts where Donald had purchased a family plot when he was working in the city by the Merrimack River. (She was the true power behind the throne and many of his revolutionary ideas sprang from her analytical and mathematical mind).
Though he later married Mary Cressy Litchfield (1831 to 1923) who gave him many children; the innovative edge that Donald had was slowly peetering out. His last extreme clipper ship was built in 1855 and he had much difficulty adapting to the new line of steamships. During the Civil War, he devoted his yards to steamships but they were not distinctive nor innovative and by 1869, he sold his shipyard after diminishing profits.
He purchased a farm in Hamilton and tried his hand at agriculture with only moderate success and finally retired in 1877.
Though Albenia may not be remembered in the typical history book; her legacy is secured in inspiring her husband to achieve great things through her guidance and practical knowledge in mathematics.
To Albenia Martha McKay – We salute you!
Her gravestone may be visited at Oak Hill Cemetary in Newburyport near her husband’s memorial at their family plot.