Donald McKay’s Mistake

Donald McKay, c. 1855

On Sunday, I spent most of the day at Logan Airport.  Well, the Hilton Hotel there, to be precise.  My daughter had an Irish step competition, which she enjoyed, despite some butterflies in the stomach, and I enjoyed as well.  I have to be the proud Daddy and say that she’s pretty darn good.  She really is.

As we walked into the place, I was thinking about East Boston and what little I know about it…historical or otherwise.  I’m fairly good with Massachusetts maritime history and so, when I hear East Boston, I immediately think about clipper ships.  Most people probably think about Logan.  But, almost a hundred years before the airport was built, East Boston was the epicenter of a different kind of transportation…shipbuilding.

As we walked into the vast lobby we looked up to see a reproduction of a ship’s figurehead towering above us.  This pleased me.  Even at the airport they highlight East Boston’s maritime history.  So, I started to tell my daughter why the figurehead was there.  I think she was interested for about five seconds and then began to pull me towards the elevator.

By the time we got in the elevator, I was silently contemplating a sad story I had read about Donald McKay not long ago.  He was the greatest of the Boston shipbuilders.  There are others who fall in his shadow and get short shrift.  But McKay, one has to admit, broke just about all the records and earned his prominent place in history.  In 1845, he set up a shipyard in East Boston, about a mile from where I was standing at the time.  The remains of it are still there and I keep meaning to go see the spot where Boston’s most famous ships were launched.  I don’t think there’s much to look at anymore aside from some crumbling piers. Perhaps there ought to be something done about that.

At any rate, McKay was a genius and built ships that were bigger and faster than anyone else’s.  His most famous is probably the Flying Cloud which broke the record by which ships of its type were measured.  She completed a voyage from New York to San Francisco in 89 days.  That record wasn’t broken by another sailing vessel until 1980.

After a building a number of successful clippers, McKay decided in 1853 to build the biggest of them all—the Great Republic.  At extravagant expense, he put together a vessel that many said would break him financially.  She was the largest wooden vessel ever built.  To this day.  About 4,500 tons and 334 feet long on deck, 400 feet overall.  When she was launched in October 1853, the city of Boston declared a holiday and 60,000 people lined the shores of the North End, Charlestown, Chelsea and East Boston to see the spectacle.  A lot of people in those days.

When the time came for the launch, a bottle of spring water was smashed over her bow.  This was done, McKay claimed, out of respect for the women of Boston actively involved in the temperance movement.  There is a tale that McKay’s son had actually stolen and drank the bottle of champagne intended for the occasion and McKay used spring water as a last resort.  But I have trouble believing that Donald McKay couldn’t come up with a bottle of champagne in a pinch and think that the spring water thing had always been his plan.  This seems like bad luck to me.  A ship wants wine.  And, in hindsight, perhaps it was bad luck.

The launching took place with cannons firing and a band playing.  The massive vessel almost took out a sight-seeing boat from Salem as she hit the water.  But otherwise, things went fine.  She was towed out of Boston harbor by a steamboat.  Then, when she set sail, even the captain was surprised by her incredible speed.  Everything about her was so massive that mariners claimed that new hands would climb her seemingly endless masts and, by the time they came down, they were old men.  She was headed to New York to load her first cargo.  When she made her way up the East River, New Yorkers turned out by the thousands to marvel at her. Perhaps even with a bit of jealously. Boston had built the largest clipper in the world.

It took a couple months to fully load her first cargo. She was just about ready to get underway when, on the night of December 26, 1853, a fire broke out in a bakery on Front Street, a block away from the pier where she was moored.  The fire consumed the entire block and soon, to the captain’s horror, a massive shower of sparks was descending on the Great Republic.  The sails soon caught.  The captain offered $1,000 to any man who would climb the masts and cut away the sails.  But none were brave enough.  Before long, the masts, the deck, and the entire ship was ablaze.  She burned almost to the water line and partially sunk in the East River.  The spot where she burned, at the end of Dover Street, is now practically beneath the Brooklyn Bridge.

McKay was telegraphed about the tragedy and came to New York as fast as he could to see the wreckage.  He was desolate.  A friend said that he seemed to have aged 20 years overnight. I can only imagine what it must have been like to see your greatest work, the pinnacle of your career, reduced to a smoldering hulk just months after she was built at such great cost.

McKay bounced back and built many famed vessels after this incident. But I’m sure he never forgot the tragedy. And the remains of the Great Republic were bought by someone else and she was rebuilt. Although not as large, at around 3,500 tons, she was still the biggest clipper afloat.  How it must have pained McKay, though, to think of the records she would have broken if not for the fire.

By the time I had run through this story in my head, we had arrived at our floor and my daughter and I were signing in at the competition.  And then we were off to get her ready amid a throng of bustling dancers.  Donald McKay was quickly forgotten.

But, as we were signing in, I couldn’t help but ponder.  Did McKay ever again use water to christen a ship?

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, and quondam Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

3 responses to “Donald McKay’s Mistake

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