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Champion of the Seas Clpr Donald McKay Great Republic

Donald McKay (1810-1880)

Nova Scotia became a world leader in both building and owning wooden sailing ships in the 2nd half of the 19th century. Nova Scotia produced internationally recognized ship builders Donald McKay and William Dawson Lawrence.  Notable ships included the barque Stag Designed by a pioneering Canadian naval architect named Ebenezer Moseley,  Stag was built with a dramatic "Aberdeen bow". Considered an Atlantic Canadian example of a Clipper Ship, she was famous for several fast passages, despite her small size, and was painted by the famous Nova Scotian ship portrait artist John O’Brien.  Also the ship William D. Lawrence, the largest wooden ship ever built in Canada.

“It was a memorable event in Canadian ship-building annals when his big ship took the water, and had it been elsewhere but in a quiet little Nova Scotia town on the banks of the Shubenacadie River, there would have been a great furor, and Lawrence’s genius and skill would have been proclaimed to the four corners of the earth.”

The fame Nova Scotia achieved from sailors was assured when Joshua Slocum became the first man to sail single-handedly around the world (1895). This international attention continued into the following century with the many racing victories of the Bluenose schooner.

A master shipbuilder, with his 2nd shipyard located on Border Street in East Boston . His company launched many of the fastest Clippers in history, with Flying Cloud being the most famous.  A clipper ship is a large sailing vessel with 3 or 4 masts and square-like sails. The bow or front of the boat is wide and raked forward, allowing increased speed on the open ocean. The clippers were utilized for the New York-San Francisco run during the California Gold Rush, as well as trans-Atlantic routes.  McKay's House still stands on top of Eagle Hill in East Boston on White Street.

Flying Cloud

The "Flying Cloud," built in 1851 by Donald McKay for Enoch Train, and purchased by Grinnell, Minturnand Co , of New York, was one of the fastest clippers ever launched. She had a figurehead of an angel on the wing, with a speaking-trumpet in her hand.

She sailed from New York to San Francisco in 1851 in 89 days and '21 hours, under Captain Josiah Perkins Cressy. In one day she covered 433 statute miles, 42 miles faster than any steamship had then done in the same time.

Flying Cloud

Donald McKay, shipbuilder, was born in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, September 4, 1810. He learned the shipbuilders' trade in New York City, settled in Newburyport Massachusetts, as a shipbuilder, and in 1845 removed his business to East Boston, where he conducted a large shipyard.  He built for Enoch Train several clipper ships for his line of Liverpool packets (Diamond Line) which were celebrated for their speed.  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 89 days, 3 days less than the Great Republic,  the Sovereign of the seas 2400 tons, making 430 geographical miles in 24 hours and 3144 miles in ten days.

He constructed the model of a paddle-wheel steamer, exhibited in July, 1853, which he claimed would cross the ocean in 6 days. He constructed a number of U.S. Gunboats, including the light-draft monitor Nauser and the double-end gunboat Ashuelot, [Native American word meaning "A collection of many waters."] for service in the Civil War.

The discovery of gold in California in 1848 and in Australia in 1850, along with the importance of arriving at ports 1st with merchandise, created a demand for the fastest passages to both places. The repeal of the British Navigation Acts in 1849, opening the tea trade from China to London to foreign ships, gave a tremendous boost to the production of American Clippers. Tea from China was a very profitable cargo and several clippers were specially built for the trade. The first arrivals in London of the new crop each year commanded the highest prices. Donald McKay took the lead, producing 1st the revolutionary Stag Hound, then Flying Fish and Flying Cloud. These were perhaps his most famous clippers, though his Sovereign of the Seas was a record-breaker. Built in 1852 for the Swallow Tail LineFlying Cloud made a name for herself through the speed of her voyages on the New York/California run. 

The last boat of his construction was the U.S. Sloop-of-War Adams, in 1874. He retired to Hamilton, Massachusetts, in 1874, and devoted himself to farming.

The beauty and speed of the clipper ships, Westward Ho, Flying Fish, Bald Eagle, Champion of the Seas, Empress of the Seas and Golden Fleece gave him a world-wide reputation as a naval constructor. He died in Hamilton, Massachusetts, September 20, 1880.

Stag Hound - 1850, extreme clipper, designed by Donald McKay and built in East Boston. When it was built, it was the largest vessel in the American Merchant Marine; the record did not last long.

With the Californian Gold Rush - Merchant firms such as Boston's Sampson & Tappan were able to venture the capital necessary to build extreme clippers, a type of vessel longer, with taller masts, more heavily sparred, and with sharper lines than any built before this time. With the money in hand, McKay and his men built the Stag Hound in only 100 days in late 1850.

"Designed and built by Donald McKay at East Boston, her model was original.  The entrance and clearance lines were very long and sharp, slightly convex." The "Boston Atlas" of 1851 described Stag Hound as follows: "Her model may be said to be the original of a new idea in naval architecture ... She is longer and sharper than any other vessel of the merchant service in the world, while her breadth of beam and depth of hold are designed with special reference to stability."  She was built to carry 1,600 registered tons' burden, several hundred tons of freight capacity greater than any other vessel then being built for the California trade. Almost all of the manufactured goods consumed in the California gold fields had to be carried from the United States East Coast.

"When she was launched, the Stag Hound was the largest merchant ship ever built, being 215 feet long, and having a register of 1,535 tons. No less than 15,000 people gathered to see her launched despite the cold, and, as the lubrication tallow froze, boiling whale oil was poured upon the sliding ways to ease her launch."

The bells of Boston pealing noon were echoed by the sound of hammers knocking away the blocks. The watchers held their breath as the great ship stirred. "There she goes!" they cried, and the foreman smashed a bottle of rum across her forefoot. "Stag Hound!" he shouted, "Your name's Stag Hound!" She slid gracefully into the water. Cheering reverberated across the bay; a cannon roared; a band played loudly.

‘FLYING FISH’ Built 1851. Wood ship of 1505 Tons. Length; 198.6 ft. Breadth; 27.1 ft. Depth; 22 ft. Built by Donald McKay for Sampson and Tappan. Master; Captain Nickels. [Passenger Liner]

‘WIZARD’ Built 1852. Wood ship of 1346 Tons. She was built by Donald McKay and renamed ‘Queen of the Colonies’ when bought by the White Star Line for the colonial passenger service. Owned by Donald Mackay of the Black Ball line when sailing under the name ‘Wizard’. [Passenger Ship]

‘SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS’ Built 1852. Wood ship of 2421 Tons. Length; 245 ft. Breadth; 44 ft. Depth; 23 ft. Built by Donald McKay in the USA. Master; Captain L Mackay[brother of the builder] She was chartered to the Blackball line in 1853 with Captain Warner as her new master. She was returned to her owners after only one voyage for the Blackball line. She was sold to a German company to end her career. [Passenger Liner]

In the new American clipper, the Sovereign of the Seas, the ropes which form the running rigging are of cotton, which is not only capable of a tighter twist, but is not liable to become deteriorated by friction in the same degree as hempen cords. After they have been in use, too, for years, they can be sold for nearly as much as the original cost. These ropes are quite smooth, and run with great rapidity through the blocks. The sails also of this vessel are of cotton, two sets of cotton sails costing only the sum paid for one set of linen.

‘GREAT REPUBLIC’ Built 1853. Wood ship of 4555 Tons. Length; 335 ft. Breadth; 53 ft. Depth; 38 ft. Built by Donald McKay for his own shipping company. Master; Captain Alden Gifford, he christened the vessel and she was towed to New York for a cargo and passengers. She was ready to leave when a fire broke out in Front street and sparks from the fire set her rigging ablaze. Her crew fought vainly to save her but she was burned to the waterline. Two other ships, ‘White Squall’ and ‘Joseph Walker’ also went up in flames at the same time. The hull of ‘Great Republic’ was raised and found to be strained by the grain cargo swelling inside her but she was put back into the stocks and rebuilt to a smaller size. Her new owners were A A Low and Brother. She left on her maiden voyage in February 1855. Captain J. S Hatfield bought her in 1866 and he sold her to the Merchant Trading Company. She was abandoned in a sinking condition off Bermuda in 1872 under the name ‘Denmark’. [Passenger Ship and General Carrier]

‘RED ROVER’ Built 1853. Wood ship of 1020 Tons. Length; app 210 ft. Breadth; app 37 ft. Depth; app 21 ft. Built by Donald Mackay for the Black Ball line. She was renamed ‘Young Australia’ and was placed in the Ausralian trade. [Passenger Liner]

‘JAMES BAINES’ Built 1854.
Wood ship of 2515 Tons.
Length; 266 ft.
Breadth; 44.8 ft.
Depth; 29 ft.
Built by Donald McKay for the Blackball Line. Master; Captain McDonald. She was in port at the Huskisson dock in Liverpool, England on the 22nd April 1858 when she caught fire. She was gutted and her remains were towed to a landing stage at Liverpool dock. [Passenger liner]

‘LIGHTNING’ Built 1854.
Wood ship of 2084 Tons.
Length; 244 ft.
Breadth; 44 ft.
Depth; 23 ft.
Built by Donald McKay of the USA. Master; Captain Bully Forbes.
She was sold to James Baines of the Blackball Line and was placed in the Australian passenger service. Her first voyage to Australia was on the 31st of October 1869. After many years in that service, she caught fire at the Geelong, Victoria pier. The fire was discovered at 1.30am and it was soon apparent that she could not be saved. Her Iron foremast melted in its steps and the fire raged out of control all day. She finally burned to the waterline at sunset after attempts had been made to sink her with cannon fire.  [Passenger Liner]

DONALD McKAY’ Built 1855. Wood ship of 2598 Tons. Length: 257.9 ft Breadth: 46.3 ft. Depth: 29.5 ft. Built by Donald McKay in America and sold to the Blackball Line. Master; Captain Warner then Captain Ryan then Captain Wallace in 1881. She was old to Carl Bruer of Bremerhaven and was made a coal hulk at Madiera. She was then taken to Bremerhaven and hulked there in 1886. [Passenger Liner]

SOVEREIGN OF THE SEAS IV’ Built 1868. Wood ship of 1458 Tons. Length; 199.5 ft. Breadth; 41 ft. Depth; 23.9 ft. Built by Donald Mackay at Boston, USA. Registered; New York. She ended her days as a schooner barge owned by L Luckenbach. Master; Captain Anderson. [Passenger Liner]

‘GLORY OF THE SEAS’ Built 1869. Wood clipper of 2103 Tons. Length; 240.2 ft. Breadth; 44.1 ft. Depth; 28.3 ft. Built by Donald McKay for J Henry and Sears. Master; Captain Gist then Captain Chatfield followed by Captain Josiah N Knowles then Captain McLaughlin and finally Captain Joshua S Freeman.  She was sold to the Alaska Packers Association and became a cannery ship in her later years. She was again sold in 1913 and the Glacier Fish Company became her new owners at Tacoma USA. She was turned into a freezer barge at that time. After a few halfhearted attempts to make her a museum ship, her owners burned her on a beach near Seattle, in 1922. [Passenger Liner and Cannery Ship]


William Dawson Lawrence

William Dawson Lawrence(16 July 1817 – 8 December 1886) was a successful shipbuilder, businessman and politician. He built the William D Lawrence, which is reported to be the largest wooden ship ever built in Canada. Lawrence was born in Lawrencetown, County Down NI.  In 1874, W.D. Lawrence's great ship was reputed to have been the largest wooden sailing ship in the world and the largest wooden ship ever built in Canada.  The William D. Lawrence represents the pinnacle of W.D.’s career as a Marine Architect, businessman, and politician. He built the ship in Maitland.  The vessel was 263 feet long.

William Dawson Lawrence began his ship building career at the John Chappell shipyard in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where he designed his 1st ship (1849). He also worked at the Alexander Lyle shipyard in Dartmouth. Lawrence also had the opportunity to study in Boston under the great Nova Scotian ship builder Donald McKay.  He returned to Nova Scotia and built 2 vessels close to his childhood home in Maple Grove, Nova Scotia. . Then Lawrence built 6 more vessels opposite his home in Maitland, Hants County, Nova Scotia, Lawrence was very successful in business.  The 3-year maiden voyage of the William D. Lawrence involved Lawrence being towed from Maitland to Saint John, New Brunswick.  Upon the ship being fitted, Lawrence then travelled to Liverpool, Aden, British India (present day Yemen); Callao, Peru, Le Havre, St Johns, Newfoundland, and then returned home.  While in France, Lawrence successfully sued in French Supreme Court those who owed him money from an unexpected delay in Peru.  During his voyage he recorded the life of sailors at sea and in port.  While at sea, Lawrence records events such as catching a shark.  In terms of a sailor’s life in port, he recorded a significant amount of their lives being intimately linked with sex trade workers.  Lawrence makes significant observations about the plight of women around the world.  Lawrence built 8 vessels which were very profitable for him. The 2 last vessels he built, the Pegusus (1867) and the William D. Lawrence (1874) were the most profitable.  From the 1st 4 years at sea, W.D. earned from the Pegasus a profit of $1.4 million.  From the 1st 3 years at sea, W.D. earned from the William D. Lawrence a profit of $1 million. After profiting from the vessel for 5 more years, W.D. sold the William D. Lawrence for $2.4 million.


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Last modified: 01/09/2013