Biography of Donald McKay
(September 4, 1810 – September 20, 1880)


Donald McKay was born on a farm in Jordan Falls, Shelbourne County, Nova Scotia and attended the common schools located there.    He emigrated in 1827 to New York to take up an apprenticeship in the shipyards of Isaac Webb.


Donald McKay began his apprenticeship by working from sunrise to sunset six days a week, a workweek of 70 hours that he would describe later in life as "slavocratic." The following year Donald was joined by his younger brother Lauchlan, who also became apprenticed to Isaac Webb.
The two McKay brothers and other apprentices stayed on Columbia Street at a boarding house, a large brick building that was erected by the master shipbuilders and popularly known as the "Weary Wanderers' Hotel."

Richard C. McKay in his book: Some Famous Sailing Ships, has this to say:

From all accounts, it was the headquarters of considerable jocularity; and, we daresay, the future builder-owner of a fleet of the finest ships that ever sailed the main, often joined his companions, when they went out upon those festive nocturnal expeditions that made these precocious shipyard apprentices the terror of the neighborhood.

No doubt many of these nocturnal expeditions were to the South Street waterfront, where they would wander about the wharves and piers and marvel at the many ships, and have lively debates about the sailing merits of each vessel. These nocturnal expeditions were a way to unwind from a grueling work schedule that people would find appalling today.

The apprentice workday would begin at four-thirty in the morning and end at seven-thirty in the evening, a period of fifteen hours. At eight a.m. they were allowed an hour for breakfast. At twelve they had two hours for lunch, and would then work till the evening, with supper coming after the day's labor.

The big ships were built along the river with their sterns right at the water's edge and were surrounded by latticed scaffolding. A wide ramp was set up alongside each hull where workmen would carry timbers and everything else to the decks. Amidst the steady din of noise, carpenters applied the planking to the hull. A vast lumberyard surrounded the work area where planks and beams of every shape and size were stacked in rows.
Everything had to be done by hand. Sawing timbers was by far the most tiring and tedious chore in the yards. Right around this time, the first steam powered innovations began to show up in the New York yards for the lifting and sawing of timbers. Donald McKay duly took note of this and soon his young agile mind began to think of ingenious ways to harness this power.

Donald and Lauchlan McKay spent many hours learning every aspect of the ship carpenter's trade. They pulled the saws in the pits, carried the heavy timbers on their shoulders up the ramp to the deck, drilled holes and pounded trunnels, those marvelous wooden tree nails. They did the caulking, labored over ship's plans in the molding loft, and did many other things that were expected of them.

But these many hours of work gave the apprentice a firm foundation on which to establish his future livelihood, and Donald McKay always felt indebted to Isaac Webb. He had "served his time" and learned the "mystery" of becoming a ship's carpenter.

Over these same years young William Webb, a boy entering his teens at the time, was getting early lessons about the "mystery" himself and spent many hours in the shipyard with all the various tasks, as well as building small boats on his own. Two of the most talented shipwrights of the coming era of the clipper ships came to know each other at an early age and perhaps the rivalry between the two was sparked at that time.

Isaac Webb would invite his young apprentices over to his home for dinner occasionally on Sundays and holidays, and this must have been a welcome respite for the young McKay brothers so far from their homes and family.

But eventually the "indenturing" palled upon Donald McKay. The many hours of "slavocratic conditions" became burdensome and began to take a toll on his spirit. He was restless and had already more than proven his abilities to his master, Isaac Webb, and had taken on greater duties and far more important work than the rest of the apprentices. He decided to demand a release from his apprenticeship a few months shy of his four-and-a-half-year contract.    Isaac Webb, to his credit, had anticipated this move by his young apprentice and granted him a free and clear release from the terms of his indenture.

The Return to Nova Scotia

Donald McKay, now 21 years old and a "free lance shipwright," left the Webb & Allen shipyard and booked passage to Nova Scotia. He had been away for five years and missed his homeland.

The gently flowing Jordan River was a welcome sight to Donald McKay who, after the toil of the past five years, was relieved to get away from New York City and join his family again.


In the spring of 1832, Donald McKay along with his uncle, Robert McKay, began to build a barkentine on the Jordan River below the falls. They opened accounts with Shelburne blacksmiths "from who they bought rivets for crosstrees, for mast hoops, and for rudder bands; hinges for quarter boards; a strap for a martingale; hoops for a windlass." ( From 'The McKay's and McPhersons' by Marion Robertson )

Once they completed the vessel, they sailed her to Halifax. Unfortunately neither of the McKays were astute businessmen for they both were cheated out of the money by the people they had sold the vessel to.

This financial disaster forced Robert McKay to mortgage his house that he had inherited from his father, Sergeant Donald McKay. Robert would eventually lose title to the house in a forced sheriff sale in 1834 and Robert, with his house and land now gone, would move on to Port Joli where his wife's family lived.

Whatever thoughts and dreams Donald McKay had of a shipbuilding career in his homeland ended with this financial disaster.   Disheartened, he said his good-byes to his family and returned to New York City.

Corvette Hercules

Upon returning to New York, Donald McKay lost little time in finding employment as a freelance shipwright in the shipbuilding trade. The year was 1832 and at that time by far the best work in the New York shipyards was in the construction of packet ships. Packets were the pride of the maritime world as they raced back and forth across the Atlantic to Liverpool, London and Havre. The majority of these fast ships were built in the New York City yards of Isaac Webb, Smith & Dimon, and Brown & Bell.

With his local reputation already established, Donald McKay's abilities had long ago been noticed by Jacob Bell of the Brown & Bell shipyard next door to the shipyard of Isaac Webb. In the young Nova Scotian shipwright, Bell saw a talented craftsman eager to prove what he could do, so Bell offered him a job. Under the wing of Jacob Bell, Donald McKay would find the opportunity to advance himself.

William Webb was by that time an apprentice at his father's yard and had steadfastly chosen this profession for himself, even though his father had initially tried to talk him out of it, but had at last come to realize that his son was determined to become a shipbuilder. For the next six years, William did all that was required and served his time as the other apprentices did taking no special favors just because he was Isaac Webb's son, except that he continued to live at home.

Stephen Smith

Around this time, Isaac Webb decided that his shipyard was not large enough to suit his needs. So he sold his yard to Brown and Bell and moved his yard farther uptown to a larger less expensive waterfront tract just north of the Smith and Dimon yard between Fifth and Seventh Street.
At the neighboring Smith and Dimon yard, Stephen Smith occupied his time designing and building ships. His partner John Dimon specialized in ship repairs which turned out to be the more profitable work of the yard as Dimon himself once pointed out: "Smith builds the ships and I make the money."

Smith and Dimon Shipyard

New shipyards were springing up all along the East River waterfront from Corlear's Hook north to Thirteenth Street and by 1832 they numbered over thirty.      North of the new Webb and Allen yard, Bishop and Simonson opened up a shipyard in 1834 and this yard was kept busy by Cornelius Vanderbilt who was the uncle of Jeremiah Simonson.

Just north of that yard, William H. Brown (no relation to Brown and Bell) established a new yard that specialized in building steamboats.
North of there was the Novelty Iron Works where engines were built, and other yards that specialized in joiner or repair work.
Farther north was the Thomas and Steers yard that in the coming years would work closely with William Webb.

The South Street Piers

Around this time, Christian Bergh decided to retire and passed on his shipyard to his two sons and to his two loyal assistants, Jacob A. Westervelt and Robert Carnley. After taking a year off to travel around European shipyards, Westervelt and Carnley returned to New York and Westervelt eventually bought out his partners and took control of the shipyard.

A state of friendly rivalry and cooperation existed between the neighboring shipyards along the East River; particularly between the Webb and Allen yard and the yards of Smith and Dimon and Brown and Bell, for they all had the common link of apprenticeship to Henry Eckford. Apprentices and mechanics freely wandered back and forth between the yards in their spare moments to engage in lively discussions with one another.

Their mentor, Henry Eckford, stayed active with the designing of ships, but had left the management of the yard to Isaac Webb. Some of Eckford's business investments had gone bad in 1828 and he had lost a great deal of money. He had designed the corvette Kensington in the late 1820s for the Mexican government. Upon completion, the Mexican government decided that the ship was too large to suit their purposes, so Eckford eventually sold her to Russia. In order to keep lucrative commissions coming his way, Eckford accepted an order for a similar corvette from the Sultan of Turkey, a recent purchaser of an Eckford warship, who was still at war with the Greeks.

American sympathies ran high on the side of the Greeks at that time. During the construction of the corvette, named the United States, her buyer and destination was a carefully kept secret within the yard. Upon completion, the United States set sail for the Mediterranean on June 5, 1831, with Henry Eckford aboard, along with a few unsuspecting passengers. Eckford wanted to deliver the ship to the Sultan of Turkey personally, as well as collect the $150,000 for the vessel, and to secure future lucrative contracts.

The 126-foot United States flew across the Atlantic and reached the Azores in ten days time with one of the passengers, Dr. James E. DeKay, noting: "Our greatest pleasure is sailing faster than anything we fall in with."

The United States arrived at Istanbul and both ship and builder made such a profound impression upon the Sultan that his government asked Eckford to remain there and take on the position within the Ottoman Empire of Naval Constructor. The financial rewards must have been rather enticing, for Eckford could have continued on with the building of ships at his New York yard and done very well for himself. Instead, he chose to accept the position and remained at Istanbul. He wrote home to Isaac Webb informing Webb of his decision and requested that some of the shipwrights from the yard join him at the Turkish capital.

As soon as Eckford realized that his extended visit to Istanbul would be a long one, he wrote home to his family explaining among other things, the trust that he had in Isaac Webb for managing the affairs of his yard. His letter home included the following passage:

I have the most unbounded confidence in the honor and integrity of Isaac Webb, and I cannot be mistaken; and it is my particular wish that he may be consulted and advised with by my whole family as a man in whom they may implicitly rely, and one whose judgment is good on all subjects with which he is acquainted. He is cautious in business, and not easily led astray. On the whole, I think him one of the safest men I have met as a friend.

Isaac Webb's obvious and continued devotion and attention to the business of running Henry Eckford's yard turned out to be most profitable for Eckford. While his efforts endeared him to his employer, they were not all that financially rewarding to Webb himself. But his perseverance and dedication to his mentor would eventually bear fruit.

Henry Eckford, while supervising the construction of a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, unexpectedly died in Istanbul during a cholera epidemic on November 12, 1832. According to Eckford's wishes and the terms of his will, Isaac Webb and his partner John Allen were presented with the opportunity to purchase the shipyard from Eckford's heirs and continue operating the yard in pretty much the same fashion as they had been doing. Webb went on to establish his own reputation as the leading American shipwright, who would continue on the legacy passed on to him by Henry Eckford and would throughout the rest of his career teach his young apprentices the "mystery" of shipbuilding.

The Marriage of Donald McKay

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.

Albenia 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. In Albenia Boole, Donald McKay had met his match. 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 keen. 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.

Speed in the design of packets

By then the American packets sailed at fixed times to predetermined destinations regardless of the weather and with them went the government mail and important private commerce. Passengers, both American and foreigners, hailed this new service and flocked to South Street to book passage to Europe. Foreigners, Canadians, West Indies merchants and English officers from the Canadian provinces preferred sailing the fast American packets home to England to their own fleet. The New York packets were the dominant force in the transatlantic trade.

All this competition among the packet fleets had the effect of raising the question as to just what it was that made one ship faster then all the others. Nowhere in the maritime world was this question felt more keenly than in the New York shipyards. Surely it was a matter of hull design, size, of rigging, and workmanship. Other factors counted too, not the least of which were the abilities of ship captains who were successfully able to command men and drive their ships through all kinds of weather flying canvas right up to the point of disaster.

No one knew exactly what made one ship better then another. Scientific principles were eagerly sought by shipbuilders using the trial and error method as they meticulously hunted down every conceivable source of information in the earnest hopes of gaining an edge on a competitor.
Different kinds of fish were cut up and their shapes analyzed. Small models of various shapes and forms were devised for tests to see how the flow of the waves away from the bow could be improved.

John Willis Griffiths

One man who did not think much of the "cod's head and mackerel tail" theory of ship design was employed, in 1832, as a draftsman at the Smith & Dimon shipyard that adjoined the Brown & Bell shipyard where Donald McKay worked. His name was John Willis Griffiths.      One year older than Donald McKay, Griffiths was the son of a shipwright employed at one of the East River yards. Griffiths learned his trade from his father, and by 19 was employed as a draftsman in the Gosport Navy Yard at Portsmouth, Virginia. He began to draw the attention of maritime circles when he designed the Macedonian that turned out to be the fastest frigate in the U. S. Navy.

A relentless advocate of his own ideas, Griffiths soon came to the attention of Smith & Dimon after his series of articles appeared in the Portsmouth Advocate. His ideas on marine architecture were considered quite radical at that time. Stephen Smith and John Dimon were, however, impressed and lured the young shipwright back to New York.

Many people from the old school of shipbuilding scoffed at Griffiths' "newfangled" ideas and were put off by Griffiths' outspoken manner with such statements as "The science of ship building has long been shackled with deep-rooted prejudices" concerning "the miserable failures in ship building."
Griffiths was not one to spend his time whittling away at models as his colleagues did and many of them eyed him with suspicion.
Griffiths, a superior draftsman, was a man of science, physics, and mathematics who relied on hydrostatic equations, as well as experience and observations when working out the relative efficiencies of different forms of wood that were pulled with a line through the water.
In doing this, he was merely confirming earlier ideas that had been put forth in a brewer's vat.

A decade earlier Griffiths had the good fortune to read an obscure British publication: Nautical and Hydraulic Experiments, with numerous scientific miscellanies, by Colonel Mark Beaufoy, who, as a boy of 14, had the courage to question a theory put forth by Sir Isaac Newton. While listening to a lecture by an English mathematician concerning a set of Newton's 17th century equations that Beaufoy later called "the solid of least resistance," Beaufoy heard something that didn't make any sense. Newton claimed that a fat cone shaped object whose length was three times its breadth was fastest with least resistance when pulled through the water by a line, fat end first. Beaufoy was dumbfound with disbelief. Since Newton's time, European shipbuilders had taken Newton's theory to heart in designing ships with the bulbous cod's head and mackerel tail--none of them ever questioning this exalted master's authority on this matter.

Being a brewer's son, Beaufoy soon devised a practical test to disprove Newton's theory. On the edge of a brewer's vat Beaufoy placed a pulley. Over the edge he tied a set of keys to a line as a counterweight and at the other end of the line he tied a cone-shaped piece of wood. Sure enough, the cone-shaped piece of wood moved through the water faster when the narrow end of the cone was pulled first by the line.     More complicated tests soon followed in specially designed tanks. Many shapes of wood were tried, and those that offered the least resistance were long and narrow with a V-shaped bottom and were widest amidships.

All of these tests were studiously recorded by Beaufoy in his Nautical and Hydraulic Experiments. This work was then presented to England's Royal Society, of which Beaufoy was a member. Britain's conservative ship builders, put off by this young brash upstart who dared to challenge the revered Newton, ignored Beaufoy's conclusions. His papers collected dust for the next 35 years until they were happened upon by Griffiths.

Griffiths soon confirmed Beaufoy's findings with his own experiments. He then conducted further tests with his own ideas. The slimmer the body of the model, and narrower and longer the bow, the faster they moved through the water. Those with the maximum breadth further aft were the fastest. Also important to Griffiths' expanded theories was the stern of the ship. Ships of old were designed stern-end-to and had a tapered bottom under their sterns; the old theory being that this created a minimum of drag and undisturbed wake. Griffiths' experiments detected a hidden underwater drag that was undetectable at the surface, but was slowing the ship. Griffiths' tank tests showed that ships with a flatter rounder stern offered the path of least resistance.       Scientific principles of shipbuilding were an alien concept to the minds of many in the community and Griffiths was scoffed at and held to ridicule, particularly by the old salts.     But the struggle for the control of the world's carrying trade was picking up in intensity, and the search for answers that the American merchant marine so desperately sought came down to this:

How to reshape the most convenient and capacious cargo box into a solid of least resistance--and how, at the same time, to translate the unpredictable energies of wind into the swiftest forward motion.

The Continuing Education of Donald McKay

In the parlor of Donald and Albenia’s East Broadway home, lively discussions concerning the future development of shipbuilding took place in the evenings. Griffiths was a frequent guest on many occasions as was William Webb.

Fellow shipbuilders, apprentices, and others would join the percolation of ideas that would stretch the imaginations of these young shipwrights. From these rooms, ambitious young men would go on to build the most amazing sailing ships the world had ever seen. Griffiths was already formulating his ideas for his Rainbow even though he didn't know her name at the time. She would be the true test of all his theories that he had spent his lifetime pursuing. She would have the first "clipper bow" which was an elongated, concave bow that would slice through the waves like no ship with a rounded bow ever did. Among friends, Griffiths could get carried away as the spirited "talking ship" conversations went on into the night. The seeds of Griffiths' theories were planted into the imaginations of the gathered young shipwrights.

Donald McKay worked long hours in the Brown & Bell shipyard. It was good steady well paying work, but was fast becoming a routine task. Donald McKay began looking for more challenges.

In 1840, Jacob Bell, by now aware that his young shipwright was eager to move on with his career and gain more experience, recommended Donald McKay for a position as foreman at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. He was chosen over a thousand men for the job and named foreman over a large group of men doing important work at the shipyard. But the winds of opportunity that Donald McKay thought that he would find there suddenly began to blow the other way. Foreign immigration had become a hot issue in New York City at that time and workers were uneasy about losing their jobs to foreigners. Some men in the yard became resentful about taking orders from a "Bluenose" Nova Scotian. Resentments left over from the American Revolution and the War of 1812 still ran deep in some of the American workers and Donald McKay was bullied out of the yard.

Jacob Bell soon came to the rescue of his young friend and sent him up to Wisscasset, Maine to help with the building of a number of packets for the New York ship owners. Here, as a Nova Scotian, Donald McKay felt welcome. Maine and Nova Scotia shared a maritime culture as well as the Bay of Fundy. Many Nova Scotians worked in Maine shipyards.

The shipbuilding methods on the northern New England coast had not kept up with the latest time-saving and labor-saving technological advances that were taking place in the New York shipyards. The New England shipyards could certainly utilize the talents of a young ambitious New York shipwright. In Wisscasset Donald McKay found the opportunity that he was looking for that would keep him busy for a while but with little to challenge his ambitions.

Donald McKay decided to return to New York, and along the way he stopped over at Newburyport, Massachusetts, at the mouth of the Merrimack River, where there was a unique, thriving shipbuilding community that had been around for two hundred years. Donald McKay liked what he saw there.

In 1796, a series of locks and canals had been completed along the "mighty" Merrimack River around the Pawtucket Falls between Chelmsford and Dracut that opened up the way for lumber and other products from the interior to get to market. A chain bridge built three miles above town discouraged seagoing vessels from going further upstream. Newburyport became the hub. A steady supply of oak and pine from the interior would keep the sawmills and shipyards busy. Wood prices were lower in Newburyport and this attracted contracts for the local shipyards to build ever larger ships for the competing shipping lines of the Boston and New York Merchants.

Donald McKay liked what he saw in this shipbuilding community and found work in the shipyard of John Currier, Jr., then one of the foremost shipbuilders in Newburyport. He took over supervision of the completion of the Delia Walker, a ship of 427 tons that would become the possession of Mr. Dennis Condry. The young foreman soon caught the eye of Condry who had become impressed with the unusual mechanical ability of McKay as the work progressed and how fast the work got done. McKay knew how to work with his men and get the most out of them. This observation, along with a few good words passed on three years later, would lead to another one of those fortuitous events that would lead to the advancement of McKay's career.

John Currier, Jr. made McKay an advantageous offer to work for him and to bind him for five years of service, but the offer was refused. McKay wanted to open his own yard.        William Currier (no relation to John Currier, Jr. ), offered Donald McKay a partnership, and the new firm of Currier & McKay was born on the banks of the Merrimack. William Currier owned one of the sawmills in Newburyport. Donald and Albenia invested their hard-earned savings into this enterprise. At last Donald McKay had a partnership in a shipyard that he could call his own. He then moved his family from New York City to Newburyport and rented a house.

The older William Currier and Donald McKay formed a pleasant relationship that would last for two years. Currier admired his new partner who had a friendly energetic way of handling men. Donald McKay was always there right in the middle of the activity supervising every detail.
The first vessel that they built together was the barque Mary Broughton of 323 tons. The following year, 1842, they built the Ashburton of 449 tons.
Then came the Courier, of 380 tons, that was the first ship that Donald McKay designed entirely himself.

New York merchants, Andrew Foster & Son, wanted a small fast ship for the coffee trade between New York and Rio de Janeiro. McKay gave much thought to the matter and designed the Courier specifically for the Rio run. The Courier would live up to its namesake meaning as a swift messenger on the high seas. This would be a ship that could catch every puff of wind when sailing through the doldrums and could tear through the Atlantic. With her longer, finer lines, she would outsail every rival, especially those ships built for the Rio coffee trade from the New York and Baltimore shipyards. Contemptuous New York shipbuilders were astonished that any ship not built in the New York yards could outsail their ships. Other New Yorkers turned their heads with awe as this splendid little ship glided past them loaded with coffee on its way up the East River to the company docks. The Courier fulfilled the wildest dreams of her owners and builder.

Enoch Train

It was on a Cunard liner sailing to Liverpool around the same time that the Delia Walker's owner, Dennis Condry, found himself to be in the company of fellow passenger Enoch Train.    Train, A well-known merchant and ship owner from Boston, was on his way to Liverpool to establish European agencies for his new White Diamond Line of Boston-Liverpool packets. Over after-dinner brandy and cigars, both men enjoyed talking "ship" in congenial surroundings.

Enoch Train was unsure just where to build his ships. The best shipyards for building the large vessels he wanted were in New York, but prices were rising there and the yards were already backlogged with work. His loyalties were to New England, but Boston shipbuilders had not yet built large vessels like those Train had in mind. Train was in a quandary. Was there any shipbuilder out there who could handle the building of such mighty ships? There was a lot riding on this decision with little room for failure.

Having strong convictions about the subject himself, Condry argued that his ship builder friend in Newburyport was right for the job. Enoch Train was a man determined to pursue the correct solution to his dilemma by following all possible leads. Train had never heard of Donald McKay, but agreed to look him up when he returned to Boston.

Their meeting was a memorable one of "flint and steel." The shrewd Yankee merchant met the rising young shipbuilder. It was a meeting of two masterminds and each man immediately saw in the other the way of achieving their own goals.       Within the hour, Enoch Train commissioned Donald McKay to build the 620-ton Joshua Bates, the pioneer ship of his new White Diamond Line.

Enoch Train was a frequent visitor to the shipyard while the Joshua Bates rose in the stocks and kept a keen eye on the progress. Donald McKay, in Enoch Train's estimation, was turning out to be everything that Dennis Condry said he was.     The Joshua Bates was launched in 1844 and floated down the Merrimack River. At this point Enoch Train grabbed Donald McKay by the hand and said to him: "You must come to Boston; we need you. If you wish financial assistance to establish a shipyard, let me know the amount and you shall have it."


Donald McKay moved to East Boston in 1845, building substantial packet ships for the Atlantic emigrant route. McKay later designed and built some of the most successful clippers ever built worldwide.    His shipyard was located on Border Street in East Boston.      It was here that between 1845 and 1850 McKay built five large packet ships for Enoch Train's White Diamond line, which specialized in the Atlantic emigrant route from Europe to North America. These were the Washington Irving, the Anglo Saxon, the Anglo American, the Daniel Webster, and the Ocean Monarch.      He also built many of the New England clipper ships for the California and Australian trade. He built the Great Republic, of 4556 tons, in 1853, at the time the largest merchantman in the world; the Flying Cloud, that made the run from New York to San Francisco in eighty-nine days, three days less than the Great Republic; the Sovereign of the Seas, 2400 tons, making 430 geographical miles in twenty-four consecutive hours and 3144 miles in ten consecutive days.

In 1851, according to the Boston Daily Atlas, he departed on June the eighteenth on one of his own ships he had built, the Sovereign of the Seas to Liverpool. His purpose as relayed to the reporter was, first, to ascertain by personal observation afloat, what improvements, if any, can be made in clipper models; and second, to examine the principal shipbuilding establishments of Great Britain.    Impressed by the steamship technology being developed in England, he constructed a model of a paddle-wheel steamer, exhibited in July, 1853, which he claimed would cross the ocean in six days.     He even acted as a diplomat at a second trip to London when the seizure of the Trent on November 8th, 1861 had whipped the British public into war-fever.     Members of the government were either actively hostile to the Northern States or coldly indifferent, and threats of war were freely made.   On December 6, 1861, he sent a long communication to the powerful Star and Dial of London, which was published, copied, and widely commented upon throughout the United Kingdom.      In it he corrected some of the misstatements being bandied about in the English press, frankly set out the naval strength of the Northern States.     Abraham Lincoln heard of it and commented, "Donald McKay tells them honestly and well...".

He constructed a number of U.S. Gunboats, including the light-draft monitor Nauset and the double-end gunboat Ashuelot, [Native American word meaning "A collection of many waters."] for service in the Civil War. The last boat of his construction was the U.S. Sloop-of-War Adams, in 1874.

He also built up quite a tally:

McKay's clippers

The Panic of 1857 adversely affected McKay, but he survived the lean years that followed by building less spectacular ships. Travel and study in Britain convinced him that the day of the armored steamship was at hand, and he made serious efforts to persuade the U.S. government to replace outmoded naval sailing vessels.

During the Civil War, McKay built ships for the U.S. Navy, and in the postwar years, after retooling his yard, he devoted himself to building steamships. His merely moderate success in these endeavors led him to dispose of his yard in 1869.     Ill health forced him to retire in 1877.   He had obtained a farm in Hamilton, Massachusetts, in 1874, and devoted himself to farming.    He died in Hamilton, Massachusetts, September 20, 1880.    When living in Newburyport, he had purchased a family plot at the Oak Hill Cemetery.      When he died, he was buried along side his family members.

His first wife: Albenia Martha Boole, Born: 1815 in Jordan Falls, Shelburne, Nova Scotia, Canada, died after a brief illness in December, 1848, buried in Newburyport, MA. (She was the true power behind the throne and many of his revolutionary ideas sprang from her analytical and mathematical mind)
His second wife: Mary Cressy Litchfield (1831 to 1923), also buried in Newburyport, MA.

In Boston, there are two significant memorials to Donald McKay. The first marker is a large obelisk that stand at Castle Island.  This Donald McKay Monument has an address located at William J. Day Boulevard, South Boston, MA.     When entering Boston Harbor by ocean, one passes by the conspicuous monument as it cannot be unnoticed. The other memorial is a small pavilion located at Piers Park in East Boston on Marginal Street. Thus, Donald McKay has been commemorated on both sides of the harbor for all ships to view. Also, McKay's House still stands atop Eagle Hill in East Boston on White Street.


Donald McKay Memorial in Jordan Falls, Shelbourne County, Nova Scotia

Donald McKay Tombstone located at Oak Hill Cemetery, Newburyport, MA.

The Donald McKay House in East Boston



Lamb's Biographical Dictionary of the United States, 1903

American Ships by Alexander Laing

Donald McKay and the Clipper Ships by Mary Ellen Chase, Houghton Mifflin Company, Riverside Press, Cambridge, MA, 1959.

 Yankee Clippers: the Story of Donald McKay by Clara Ingram Judson and Yukio Tashiro, Follett Publishing Company, Chicago, 1965.

Donald McKay: Designer of Clipper Ships by John O'Hara Cosgrave II and Clara Ingram Judson, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1943.

Some famous sailing ships and their builder, Donald McKay by  Richard C. McKay (grandson of Donald McKay), G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1928.

Donald McKay and His Famous Sailing Ships by Richard C. McKay, Reprint of 1928 version by Dover Publications, 1995.