In the mid-19th century, when America was young, the wind in the sails of her rising economy originated on a tiny, undeveloped island: East Boston. That’s where Donald McKay, working for barons with names like Forbes and Delano, built the clipper ships that were capable of bringing goods like tea and opium from China to market in America faster than any of their peers. The race to own the seas was often secretive, cutthroat and glamorous, enriching a handful of the country’s preeminent families and sealing the name McKay as maritime royalty.
But many Bostonians don’t know the story of this son of East Boston and the shipbuilding race he dominated. Until now.
Harvard-educated historian Steven Ujifusa embarked on a voyage to tell this gripping story like no one had before. At a celebratory and informative event on Thursday, June 26, at 7 p.m., in East Boston, Ujifusa will discuss his newly released Barons of the Sea: And their race to build the world’s fastest clipper ship. New York Times bestselling historical author Nathaniel Philbrick recommends Barons as “full of remarkable characters and incredible stories,” which include those of McKay and state-of-the-art ships with names like The Flying Cloud, Lightning, and Sovereign of the Seas. In 1849, McKay’s passenger ship, Washington Irving, carried Patrick Kennedy to Boston from Ireland, beginning one of America’s most influential political dynasties.
Thursday’s event at ZUMIX (256 Sumner St.) in East Boston will celebrate McKay and East Boston’s place in American maritime lore, and will include Ujifusa discussing these and other stories, great food and drinks, and even a sea shanty or two. Co-sponsors include The East Boston Museum, Piers Park Sailing Center, East Boston Social Centers, the Donald McKay School, ZUMIX, Rob Pyles, and Steve Holt and will partially benefit the community work of nonprofit East Boston Social Centers. Admission is free.
Steven Ujifusa received his AB in history from Harvard University and a master’s degree in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania. His first book, “A Man and His Ship,” tells the story of William Francis Gibbs, the naval architect who created the ocean liner SS United States; The Wall Street Journal named it one of the best nonfiction titles of 2012. Steven has given presentations across the country and on the high seas, and has appeared as guest on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR. A recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship and the Athenaeum of Philadelphia’s Literary Award, he lives with his wife, a pediatric emergency room physician, in Philadelphia. Read more about him at StevenUjifusa.com.