The Clipper Ship Era/Chapter 16

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CHAPTER XVI


AMERICAN CLIPPERS OF 1854 AND 1855


DURING the year 1854 no less than twenty passages were made from Atlantic ports to San Francisco in 110 days or less. The Flying Cloud repeated her famous record passage of 89 days, and was followed by the Romance of the Seas, 96 days; Witchcraft, 97 days; David Brown, 98 days, and Hurricane, 99 days. The abstract log of the Flying Cloud is as follows:

Sandy Hook to the equator 17 days.
Equator to 50° South 25 "
From 50° South in the Atlantic to 50° South in the Pacific 12 "
To the equator 20 "
To San Francisco 15 "
Total 89 "


On this passage the Flying Cloud gave a fine example of her sailing qualities. She sailed eight days after the Archer, also an exceedingly fast ship, and led her into San Francisco by nine days. Captain Creesy received a grand ovation on this, his second record passage, and the merchants of San Francisco, always generous and hospitable, vied with each other to do him honor. Upon his return to New York, a banquet was given him at the Astor House, then the finest hotel in the city, and a splendid service of silver plate was presented to him by the New York and Boston Marine Underwriters.

The Romance of the Seas sailed from Boston two days after the David Brown, commanded by Captain George Brewster, of Stonington, had passed out by Sandy Hook, but came up with her off the coast of Brazil. From this point they were frequently in company for days together, finally passing through the Golden Gate side by side, March 23, 1854. After discharging their cargoes, they again passed out of the Golden Gate together, this time bound for Hong-kong, and while they were not in company during this passage of 45 days, they anchored in Hong-kong harbor on the same day and almost at the same hour. The log of the Romance of the Seas records that skysails and royal studdingsails were set just outside the Golden Gate and were not taken in during the passage until entering the harbor of Hong-kong.

It is difficult to realize the intense interest with which these clipper ship races were regarded in those days; and it is doubtful whether at the present day any branch of sport inspires so much wholesome, intelligent enthusiasm as did these splendid ocean matches of the old clippers.

In this year a change came over the California trade. The wild rush to the mines had subsided, and the markets of San Francisco, while not overstocked, were so sufficiently and regularly supplied as to render great speed in the transportation of merchandise unnecessary; the rates of freight had therefore declined, but were still good. Twenty ships, the last of the extreme clippers, were built in 1854 for the California trade, including some which became celebrated, such as the Canvasback, Fleetwing, Grace Darling, Harvey Birch, Nabob, Nonpareil, Ocean Telegraph, Rattler, Robin Hood, and Sierra Nevada; but we miss from among the ship-builders of this year the names of Donald McKay, William H. Webb, Samuel Hall, Jacob A. Westervelt, and George Raynes, none of whom brought out California clippers.

Although no more extreme clippers were built for the California trade after 1854, a fine class of ships, known as medium clippers, was constructed, some of which proved exceedingly fast, and remarkable passages continued to be made. Many of these medium clippers would be considered very sharp and heavily sparred vessels at the present time.

The Sunny South, of 703 tons register, was one of the prettiest clippers ever launched at New York, and was the only sailing ship built by George Steers, the designer of the yacht America, steam frigate Niagara, and Collins Line steamship Adriatic. She was built for the China trade, was launched at Williamsburg, September 7, 1854; was owned by Napier, Johnson & Co., and was commanded by Captain Michael Gregory. It is a singular fact that while this ship was well known to possess great speed when in company with other clippers, yet she never made a passage worthy of being recorded, and was not a very successful ship financially; although the product of the skill of a designer, who, dying in early manhood, left a name so interwoven with his country's triumphs upon the sea that it can never be forgotten.

In 1859, the Sunny South was sold at Havana, her name being changed to Emanuela. At that time her royal studdingsail booms and skysail masts and yards were removed. On August 10, 1860, she was seized in the Mozambique Channel flying the Chilian flag, with a cargo of slaves on board, by the British man-of-war Brisk, and the following particulars of her capture are given by one of the officers of that vessel:

"At 11:30 a.m. on the 10th of August last, as Her Majesty's ship Brisk, Captain De Horsey, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral the Hon. Sir Henry Keppel, K. C. B., was running to the northward in the Mozambique Channel, a sail was reported as seen from the masthead. Steam was got up without delay, and sail made in chase. It being hazy, the stranger was shortly lost sight of. When the weather had partially cleared the stranger was reported four points on our starboard bow, and the ship's course was altered in that direction. We were now going eleven knots and a half, and the Captain, feeling that it must be something out of the common that would alter bearings at that distance in so short a time, proceeded himself with his glass to the foretopmast head, officers mounting the rigging.

"That a general excitement prevailed was evident from the manner in which our sails were trimmed, taken in, and set again. Hottentots and landsmen, who on other occasions only looked at ropes, now laid hold of them with a will. The Captain's order from the masthead to keep away two points showed that he had observed something suspicious—in fact, he had noticed a sudden alteration in the course of the chase, and pronounced her to be a long, rakish-looking ship, too large to be a slaver, but thought there was something very suspicious in the sudden alteration of her course, her crowd of sail, and the unusual number of staysails.

"At about 3 P.M. we could see her hull from the deck, and, carrying with us a fresh breeze, while she was in the doldrums, we closed on her rapidly. When within half a mile we hoisted our colors, when every glass was pointed toward her peak, and all sorts of conjectures were made as to what colors she would show. No one could imagine that so large a vessel could be a slaver.

"On closing under her lee, and when within a cable's length, a white package was thrown from her side into the sea; and the experienced then exclaimed, 'A slaver, and there go her papers!' A few minutes more, and we sheered up alongside to leeward of as beautiful model of a ship as ever was seen. Some forty dejected looking individuals, apparently a mixture of all nations, stood on her deck; still no colors, nor did she appear inclined to shorten sail or heave-to. The Captain then determined to run ahead and lower the quarter-boats to drop down and board; and as this manœuvre was being carried out a blank gun caused her to square the mainyard, which she did with studding-sails hanging to the yard, and luffed up into the wind.
The Brisk and The Emanuela - 252.jpg

The "Brisk" and The "Emanuela"

"It was an anxious five minutes to those on board while the boats were away. A small white British ensign run up at her peak showed that she was a prize, and a voice hailed us, 'Eight hundred and fifty slaves on board!'"

In 1855 the California fleet was increased by the building of thirteen medium clipper ships, among which were the Andrew Jackson, Carrier Dove, Charmer, Daring, Herald of the Morning, Mary Whitridge, and Ocean Express. Only three passages were made from Atlantic ports to San Francisco during this year in 100 days or less; the Herald of the Morning, from New York, 99 days; Neptune's Car, from New York, and Westward Ho, from Boston, each 100 days. Thirteen ships made the passage in over 100 days and less than 110 days; among them being the Boston Light, from Boston, 102 days; the Cleopatra and Red Rover, from New York, each 107 days; the Flying Cloud, from New York, and Meteor and Don Quixote, from Boston, each 108 days; the Flying Fish, two passages from Boston in 109 and 105 days, and the Governor Morton, from New York in 104 days.

This was Captain Creesy's last voyage in the Flying Cloud, and he now retired to his home in Salem until 1861, when he was appointed a Commander in the United States Navy and assigned to the clipper ship Ino. She carried a crew of eighty men from Marblehead, and on her second cruise in 1862 made the record run of twelve days from New York to Cadiz. Captain Creesy subsequently commanded the clipper ship Archer, and made two voyages to China. He died at Salem in 1871, in his fifty-seventh year. So long as the American clipper ships and their brilliant exploits hold a place in the memory of man, the names of Josiah Creesy and the Flying Cloud will be remembered with pride.

The Mary Whitridge became one of the most famous of the clippers launched in 1855. She was built in Baltimore, where she was owned by Thomas Whitridge & Co., and was commanded by Captain Robert B. Cheesborough, also of that port. She was 877 tons register; length 168 feet, breadth 34 feet, depth 21 feet. On her first voyage she made the remarkable run of 13 days 7 hours from Cape Charles to the Rock Light, Liverpool. She was engaged for many years in the China trade under the command of Captain Benjamin F. Cutler and bore the reputation of being the finest and fastest ship sailing out of Baltimore.

At this time an important development took place in the California trade. It had been found that the fertile soil of the Pacific slope could be made to yield other treasures than gold, and in May, 1855, the barque Greenfield, Captain Follansbee, loaded the first consignment of wheat exported from California, consisting of 4752 bags. She was soon followed by the Charmer, commanded by Captain Lucas, which loaded a full cargo of 1400 tons of wheat for New York at $28 per ton freight. The export of wheat in sailing vessels rapidly increased, enabling ships to earn freights out and home, and this continued for many years.

In 1855 Donald McKay built three fine medium clipper ships, the Defender, Amos Lawrence, and Abbott Lawrence, which remind us that a number of Boston ships bore the names of her distinguished citizens. There were the Thomas H. Perkins, Rufus Choate, Starr King, Edward Everett, R. B. Forbes, Enoch Train, John E. Thayer, George Peabody, Samuel Appleton, Robert G. Winthrop, Russell Sturgis, and perhaps others now forgotten. There were already a ship, a barque, two brigs, and two schooners named the Daniel Webster, besides several steamboats and tugs and a pilot-boat; hence, the owners of ships who were desirous of honoring the great statesman were obliged to adopt some other means of expressing their admiration, and since Webster was known as the Defender of the Constitution and also as the Expounder of that document, there were two ships named the Defender and the Expounder. Some one suggested that the latter ship might, perhaps, have been named in honor of Yankee Sullivan, a noted prize-flghter then retired from the ring.

The Defender was 1413 tons register, and carried a splendid full-length figurehead of Daniel Webster. She was owned by D. S. Kendall and H. P. Plympton, of Boston, and was commanded by Captain Isaac Beauchamp.

My object in drawing attention to this vessel is to mention a notable gathering at Mr. McKay's house on the day of her launch, July 27, 1855. The leading merchants of Boston and their families were his guests on that occasion, and speeches were made by the Hon. Edward Everett, ex-Mayor, the Hon. Benjamin Seaver, and Enoch Train. In the course of his address, Mr. Everett remarked: "I was at a loss, I confess, to comprehend the secret of the great success which has attended our friend and host. Forty-two ships, I understand, he has built—all vessels such as we have seen to-day. I do not mean that they were all as large, but they were as well constructed and looked as splendidly, as they rode on the waves. Forty-two vessels![1] No one else, certainly, has done more than our friend to improve the commercial marine of this country, and it has long seemed to me that there was a mystery about it. But since I have been under this roof to-day, I have learned the secret of it—excellent family government, and a good helpmeet to take counsel with and encouragement from. A fair proportion of the credit and praise for this success is, I am sure, due to our amiable and accomplished hostess [Cheers]. I congratulate also the father of our host, the father of such a family. He has, I am told, fourteen sons and daughters, and fifty grandchildren. Nine of the latter were born during the last year. I wish to know, my friends, if you do not call that being a good citizen!"

When the Abbott Lawrence was launched, in October of the same year. Mr. McKay was called upon to respond to the toast, "In memory of Abbott Lawrence," and his brief speech has fortunately been preserved:

"Ladies and gentlemen: I regret my inability
Donald McKay p256.jpg

Donald McKay

to do justice to the name that is honored and respected in every part of the civilized world. My speech is rude and uncultivated, but my feelings, I trust, are warm and true, and could I express those feelings, I would tell you how much I honor the memory of Abbott Lawrence. I know you all honor it, for you all knew him, and to know him was to love him. Love begets love. He loved our common country as a statesman of enlarged and liberal views, and our state and city as the scene of his personal labors. In Massachusetts he commenced his career; here he toiled and triumphed, here he has bequeathed the richest tokens of his love, and here all of him that can die mingles with the soil. He was not only a great man, but a good man. In every relation of life, he was a model for imitation. Ever be his memory green in the hearts of his countrymen. When the ship which bears his name shall have been worn out by the storms and the vicissitudes of the sea, may another, and another, and so on, till the end of time, perpetuate it upon the ocean, for he was the patron and friend of commerce as well as of the other great interests of the state. In conclusion, ladies and gentlemen, I again give you the memory of Abbott Lawrence. May his name and noble example never be forgotten."

This speech seems to me to be most interesting, as showing the natural refinement of a mind destitute of the culture of even a common-school education, or perhaps it would be nearer the truth to say, a mind that had escaped the restraining influence of the pedagogue.

"Yet is remembrance sweet,
Though well I know
The days of childhood
Are but days of woe;
Some rude restraint,
Some petty tyrant sours
What else should be
Our sweetest blithest hours."


These lugubrious lines found no echo in the early life of Donald McKay, for his boyhood was passed in earnest, healthy toil, and filled with a keen desire for knowledge, while his manhood had known the joy of well-earned success.

After the Abbott Lawrence, Mr. McKay built the medium clippers Minnehaha, Baltic, Adriatic, Mastiff, and barque Henry Hill, all in 1856; the Alhambra, 1857; the Helen Morris, and second Sovereign of the Seas, 1868, and the Glory of the Seas, 1869. During the Civil War, he built for the United States Government, the iron gunboat Ashuelot, the ironclad monitor Nausett, the wooden gunboats Trefoil, and Yucca, and the sloop of war Adams. In 1877 he retired to his farm at Hamilton, Massachusetts, and there he died, September 20, 1880, in the seventy-first year of his age.

Donald McKay was a man of untiring energy and industry. He was a rapid and skilful draughtsman and designed and superintended the construction of every vessel that he built. This may also be said of almost every ship-builder of that period, but Mr. McKay's skill, the result of an intuitive perception ripened by experience, gave him a peculiar insight not only into how to create, but into what to create, and it was this genius that made him pre-eminent as a builder of clipper ships. He was a born artist and his ships were the finest expression of mechanical art. They are entitled to a place in the realm of fine arts far more than much of the merchandise that claims that distinction.

Mr. McKay was of a generous nature, and liberally rewarded the men who assisted him, and he was ever ready to lend a helping hand to those less fortunate than himself. So soon as he began to prosper he sent for his parents and made a new home for them at East Boston, and their comfort and happiness were always his care and greatest pleasure. In his later years he endured misfortune and ingratitude with the same sturdy sweetness and equanimity that he had shown in the days when fortune smiled.


  1. Mr. Everett is reported to have said "eighty-two," but if he did so, it was a mistake, for forty-two is the true number.