In the romantic era of the fast sailing clipper ships, Donald McKay was one of the most prominent figures. He was a naval architect who designed and built the biggest and fastest of the clipper ships. These were sailing vessels that flourished just before the steamship era.
McKay was born September 4, 1810, in Nova Scotia (New Scotland) a descendant of the Jacobite rebels who fled to Canada in the 18th century. He moved to New York City in 1827, where he was apprenticed as a ship’s carpenter.
His training complected, he worked at his trade in New York and Newburyport, Massachusetts. In 1845 McKay established his own shipyard at East Boston where he designed and built the ships that became world famous for their beauty and their speed.
This was the time of the Gold Rush when the greatest revolution in naval architecture was taking place. The clipper ship had become the safest and most comfortable way to get from the East Coast to California. McKay was the foremost architect of this change. He was a shrewd businessman with the talents of an artist and a scientist His first ship Stag Hound was launched in 1850 followed by many others, including the beautiful Flying Cloud, Glory of the Seas and Westward Ho! McKay designed every vessel in his yards and supervised every detail of their construction.
When steamship ended the clipper era (1846-1859), McKay saw the change coming and closed his yards. With the Civil War he reopened his yards and built steam-powered ships for the U.S. Navy. But his heart was with the beautiful sailing ships that made him famous. He soon retired to Hamilton, Massachusetts, where he died September 20, 1880.
Donald McKay is in the Hall of Fame maintained by the Illinois St. Andrew’s Society. The above article was written by Mr. James Casement Thomson If you would like more information about Nova Scotia, attend our History Club meeting on February 5, 2011.
Wayne Rethford, President
Scottish American History Club