Shipyards of East Boston

Sylvanus Smith, profiled in my book Summer Suffragists, was a shipbuilder in East Boston. He built ships there from 1854 to 1884. He arrived in East Boston during the peak production of clipper ships and retired at or after the end of the clipper ship era. In 1872, the family moved a few blocks north to a house he built at 76 White Street, on Eagle Hill, next to the house of the most noted clipper ship builder, Donald McKay. (McKay would sell his house in the early 1870s.) Both houses were next to a reservoir, now the site of East Boston High School. Both houses are shown on an 1879 map.

McKay's shipyard was in East Boston. One  source says it was in the southern part of East Boston, where the famous English passenger steamship company, the Cunard Line, later built its pier. Steven Cecil, "Skyscrapers of the Seas," Architecture Boston website, posted March 1, 2018, https://www.architects.org/stories/skyscrapers-of-the-seas. I think this is in error.

 

An old map from 1868 tells a different story. It shows the McKay shipyard at the foot of  White Street, at Border Street, in the northern part of East Boston. This was just two blocks from McKay's house. See D.A. Sanborn, Insurance map of Boston: volume 2 (1868), plate 79, Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, https://collections.leventhalmap.org/search/commonwealth:6h447013g.

 

The 1868 map shows what would later be the Cunard pier in the southern part of East Boston (plate 73). It does not mention Cunard, but it shows a "passenger's house."

In 1870, creditors seized Donald McKay's assets, including his shipyard. See Steven Ujifusa, Barons of the Sea (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 168, 178, 334. McKay's shipyard later became Sylvanus Smith's shipyard, according to 1874 and 1879 maps.

The excellent 1874 map shows Smith's firm, Smith & Townsend, with a shipyard at the former McKay shipyard location at the foot of White Street. G. M. Hopkins, Atlas of the County of Suffolk, Massachusetts, vol. 4: including East Boston, City of Chelsea, Revere and Winthrop (Philadelphia: G. M. Hopkins & Co., 1874), plate I, pages 42-43 (Cunard), and plate L, pages 52-53 (Smith & Townsend), http://hdl.handle.net/2452/205983. It was directly across the Boston Harbor channel from Charlestown. This is where the firm built the clipper ships Centennial (1875) and Paul Revere (1876).

 

The excellent 1879 map by O.H. Bailey (which I used in the book) shows the location of Smith's shipyard, as well as the Cunard pier. O.H. Bailey & Co., View of East Boston, Mass. (Boston: O.H. Bailey & Co., 1879), BPL/Digital Commonwealth, Digital Commonwealth, https://ark.digitalcommonwealth.org/ark:/50959/3f4634491, and State Library of Massachusetts.

The Boston Museum of Science has a diorama showing McKay's shipyard as of July 1852. (One of my sources notes "1847-1870," the period he owned the yard.) A nice image of the diorama by Daderot is at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Museum_of_Science,_Boston,_MA_-_IMG_3197.JPG. The shipyard must have been a busy place.

Other views of the shipyard are from 1853 (Naval History and Heritage Command), https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/numerical-list-of-images/nhhc-series/nh-series/NH-53000/NH-53779.html, and 1855 (great photo by Southworth & Hawes at Boston Museum of Fine Arts), https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:McKay_Shipyard_ca1855_EastBoston_Southworth_Hawes_MFABoston.png.

A painting supposedly owned by McKay shows Boston and the Harbor from Donald McKay's Shipyard, https://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2008/property-from-the-collection-of-mr-and-mrs-george-fenimore-johnson-n08401/lot.18.html.

 

Fragments from the original ways of the McKay shipyard, and related items, are at the Mariners' Museum and Park, https://catalogs.marinersmuseum.org/search?searchable-places-keyword=EAST%20BOSTON.

Early maps show McKay's shipyard had a different location, close to the one noted above, but south of White Street. The maps also show a different location for Smith's shipyard. See the following maps, available from the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, https://www.bpl.org/services-central-library/norman-b-leventhal-map-center/.

Note: maps on this page are placed from newest (at top) to oldest (at bottom).

 

Of course, McKay's and Smith's shipyards were not the only ones operating in East Boston. See my book Summer Suffragists for a bit more information about Samuel Hall and his shipyard. Period maps place his yard consistently near Central Square, at the bend in Border Street.

Steamships like those of the Cunard line eclipsed the clipper ships and other sailing ships. The Cunard line had a special relationship with Boston. Its piers were in East Boston, evidently always at the southern end. An 1852 map shows them there. In the early 1900s, Cunard had its headquarters building at 126 State Street in Boston. The building still exists, with the Cunard name chiseled in its stone facade. Bradford Hudson, "Cunard in Boston," Boston Hospitality Review, Boston University School of Hospitality Administration, February 1, 2015, https://www.bu.edu/bhr/2015/02/01/cunard-in-boston/.

1879 map. Smith & Townsend shipyard at lower left; Cunard Line pier at right.

1879 map, detail. Smith & Townsend shipyard at lower left; Smith and McKay houses two blocks above there.

1879 map, detail. Cunard Line pier at right, with steamship.

1874 map, detail. Smith & Townsend shipyard at upper center; Smith and McKay houses at bottom center, above reservoir.

1874 map, detail. Cunard wharf at center left (like a two-tined fork), which supposedly replaced McKay's shipyard.

1868 map, detail, showing "McKay's Ship Yd" at foot of White Street. Perhaps in error, since McKay operated just south of Hall's shipyard from 1863 to 1869. See "East Boston Inner Harbor Industrial Area," BOS.RP, http://mhc-macris.net/Details.aspx?MhcId=BOS.RP.

1868 map, detail. Wharf at center (like a two-tined fork), not identified as McKay's or Cunard's, has "passenger's house."

1866 map, detail. Curtis still in business at foot of White Street (and would later partner with Smith). Smith yard farther along shoreline, as is Hall yard. McKay's name does not appear at his old yard, seems to appear farther along shoreline past Hall's. McKay operated here from 1863 to 1869, according to "East Boston Inner Harbor Industrial Area," BOS.RP, http://mhc-macris.net/Details.aspx?MhcId=BOS.RP.

1852 map, detail. Only a "Timber Dock" appears (outlined) where the Curtis yard was, and where future Curtis-McKay-Smith & Townsend yards would be. McKay's wharf is nearly adjacent, but farther south from White Street, where McKay's house is shown. Smith and family would move to nearby Eutaw Street in 1854.

1851 map, detail. The once and future Curtis yard is at the foot of White Street. McKay's shipyard is nearly adjacent to the Curtis yard, but farther from White Street, where McKay's house is shown, next to the reservoir. The Hall shipyard was a long-enduring presence at its location.

McKay shipyard, Boston Museum of Science diorama

Sylvanus Smith arrived in East Boston in 1854 and worked for others, including Samuel Hall. His own firms in East Boston included the following, based on a detailed family chronicle, "The Varied Career of Silvanus Smith 1817-1901 By His Son, Sidney Smith" (1925, revised 1939), on file in the Duxbury Rural and Historical Society:

  • 1862- Silvanus Smith & Company

  • 1865- Curtis Smith & Company

  • 1873-1889 Smith & Townsend

I wrote a paper covering the above and more. I submitted it to the state's MACRIS database in late September 2020, to be added to area inventory form BOS.RP. Download it here.

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