Since time meant money for merchants moving products and people, McKay’s shipbuilding business took off. In the days of the California gold rush, McKay’s Flying Cloud, built in 1851, shortened a journey that had typically taken 200 days from New York to San Francisco around Cape Horn to a mind-boggling 89 days—a world record not broken until 1989. His Sovereign of the Seas, built a year later, posted the fastest speed recorded to date, at 22 knots, on a run from England to Australia. The Lightning, true to her name, also zapped multiple records, once sailing 436 nautical miles in just one day.
Hoel credits McKay with another transformative contribution to ship design: the more comfortable accommodation of ocean travelers. Prior to McKay’s designs, passengers were unceremoniously squished into cargo compartments, but McKay prioritized the needs of passengers with better seating, sleeping arrangements, and sanitation. His ships brought hundreds of immigrants to America, including Patrick Kennedy, who escaped the Irish Potato Famine and whose great grandson would become America’s 35th president.
McKay was greatly aided by the mathematical expertise and design acumen of his first wife, Albenia, herself the daughter of a shipbuilder. Raised near her future husband in Nova Scotia, she later reconnected with him when they both worked in the shipbuilding industry in New York City—he as an overworked apprentice and she as an accomplished naval drafter in her father’s shipyard.
Shirley Fisher of Centerville, assistant curator of the exhibit, says the clipper ship era was marked by the growing contribution of women in the business. After Albenia died and left her husband with eight children, McKay married Mary Litchfield, who, in addition to bearing nine more children, helped his shipbuilding operation in Boston, often entertaining captains and clients in their East Boston home near his shipyard. Wedding dresses of both McKay’s wives are featured in the exhibit, and are part of the museum’s extensive permanent clothing collection, including three additional wedding dresses of McKay’s descendants.