Newburyport and the Clipper Ship

Newburyport in the 1840s

While working in the shipyards of Wisscasset, Maine, Donald McKay was returning 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.

Unlike Salem that depended upon the East Indies trade, Newburyport specialized in the Labrador and bay fisheries, and in the coasting, West Indian, and European trades.

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.

The premier industry of the town was shipbuilding and the related trades that were owned primarily by a few large families who formed the upper crust of the community. They were a reserved, polite, and refined society who had acquired their wealth before the Revolution. They boasted of a genteel society second to none and with grace and dignity conducted their social affairs as an old régime.

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.

The Courier  (Considered the first of the famous ‘Clipper Ship Design’)

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. Frequent short passages meant money.

The Courier brought the maritime world's attention away from the New York yards for the first time to Newburyport, and her growing shipbuilding community was only more than willing to bask in the glory of her newfound son.

In Newburyport everybody talked "ship," so Donald and Albenia McKay were made to feel most welcome in the best social circles. Donald and Albenia McKay impressed new friends with their mechanical knowledge and ability. Donald McKay was a man of little formal education, but was drawn to cultured and refined people whose education far exceeded his own. On certain social occasions Donald McKay would play his violin.

Fortune smiled upon Donald McKay when he became acquainted with noted shipbuilder Orlando B. Merrill, one of Newburyport's most prominent and respected citizens. It was Merrill who had built the celebrated sloop-of-war Wasp that during the War of 1812 captured the British Frolic after a terrible combat. What had given the Wasp so much "sting" was the way she was designed. Merrill was the father of the water-line model, which he devised in 1794, that was to revolutionize the science of shipbuilding.

Before that time, ships were designed from skeleton models and it was very difficult to transfer the lines to the molding loft. With the water-line model, Merrill devised a precise scientific method to do the job. Rectangular slices of wood, oriented longitudinally one on top of the other, known as "lifts," were joined together by dowels or screws so that they formed a rectangular shaped block in which the half-hull model could be painstakingly carved, sanded, and shaped into the desired form. It could be then taken apart where the sheer, body, and half-breadth plans were easily transferred to paper. Shipbuilders everywhere, quick to see the merits of the new method, adopted it. But Merrill was the first shipbuilder to be free of the old traditional restraints in designing his craft. Some of his early models bore the influences of the fast Baltimore clippers of Revolutionary days, and can be considered as early forerunners to the clipper. Donald McKay formed a lifetime friendship with Merrill and received instruction in this method from the master himself. He would remember his lessons well.

Merrill would go on to live to the ripe old age of 94 and had witnessed the age of sail from Revolutionary times right through the glory years of the clipper ships.

Following the building of the Courier, the partnership of Currier & McKay was dissolved. The two men must have had a falling out at the end. For every model was divided by a saw into two equal parts. Donald McKay went on to form a partnership with William Pickett and set up a new yard at nearby Moggridge Point, at the end of Merrimack Court next to the ferryboat pier.

Under the firm name of McKay & Pickett, they began work, in 1843, on the New York Packet ship St. George, 845 tons burden, a pioneer ship for the Red Cross Line.         Then came, in 1844, the packet ship John R. Skiddy, of 930 tons, which went on to sail with great success under the command of Capt. William Skiddy in the New York-Liverpool trade.

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."

Newburyport, the Birthplace of the Clipper Ship