Captain William McKay
Captain McKay, as his name clearly indicates, is a Scotchman, having been born in the village of Golspie. When quite young his parents came across the ocean and settled in Ekford township, county of Elgin, Canada West (now Ontario), where he passed his boyhood employed at farm work. His first work for himself was in Heddin's steam sawmill at Morpeth, where he shortly arrived at the dignity of head sawyer. One Sunday, while standing on the beach of Lake Erie at Riddle's Landing, he fell in with the captain of the schooner Caledonia, of Kingston, bound for Quebec with a load of staves. He was fortunate enough to hit the captain's fancy, and striking a satisfactory bargain embarked on the schooner and began his first voyage. Next year he sailed on the schooner Madison, of Cleveland, and before the season closed was acting mate. In the following year the owner of the Madison offered him a captain's berth; but having made up his mind that steamboating was more to his taste that[sic] sailing, he shipped on the steamer Nile, running between Buffalo and Chicago.
His next employment was in the capacity of wheelsman on the Atlantic under Captain Clement, and the following season was second mate of the Canada, Captain Willoughby. Later the Canada was sent to Lake Michigan, her crew transferred to the Sam Ward, with McKay as first mate, thus beginning the Detroit and Cleveland passenger line, which carried one passenger down and two coming back on the first trip. From the Ward he went as second mate on the Caspian, plying between Cleveland and Buffalo. When the Caspian was wrecked, he was made mate of the side-wheel steamer Cleveland, as will be again mentioned farther on. Next he became mate of the Western World, then master of the Arctic on Lake Michigan, and from there went to the steamer City of Buffalo.
Captain McKay entered the employ of the Detroit and Cleveland Steam Navigation Company in 1857, leaving the city of Buffalo to become mate of the steamer Ocean, Captain Evans. From 1862 to 1864 he was master of the May Queen, and upon the death of Captain Evans was placed in command of the old City of Cleveland, where he remained until 1867, at that time going to the N.R. Rice. He sailed the Rice for ten years, or until she was burned at the Star Line dock in June, 1877, and in the following year was placed in command of a fine new steamer, the City of Detroit. On this boat he remained until 1883 when he retired from the service of the Cleveland line.
In 1884 the Star line, in which Captain McKay owned stock, found itself with one more boat than could be used profitably on the river route, and after considerable discussion it was decided to put the Evening Star on the Toledo river route. Captain McKay was asked to command the boat, and accepted, although his route had been abandoned by several boats that failed to make it pay. The Evening Star was started out of Toledo in the morning, returning in the evening, and as at the close of the first season it was seen that the traffic could be made profitable, the Star line has kept a steamer on that route ever since. After the Evening Star was abandoned, Captain McKay sailed the Idlewild over the same route, and when the Greyhound was purchased he was placed in command of her. He sailed the Greyhound until his retirement, two years ago.
The record of the lives saved by Captain McKay during his half century of service is a large one, and began very early in his career. In 1854, while mate of the Western World, running between Detroit and Buffalo, the steamer ran down a smuggling craft near the Canadian shore opposite Buffalo. The captain of the "Smuggler" was drowned, but Captain McKay saved the crew, consisting of one man and one boy. In 1856 the steamer Arctic caught fire on Lake Michigan, there being one hundred and fifty passengers on board who became panic-stricken. Captain McKay, who was in command at the time, jumped into the hold with the fire hose in his hand, and had the blaze extinguished before any serious damage had resulted, excepting to himself; his return being cut off, his whiskers were burned, and he sustained injuries from which he has never completely recovered.
On the night of October 7, 1864, Captain McKay was in Cleveland, on the steamer City of Cleveland, and learning that the captain and crew of the United States steamtug Winslow were in a perilous position, he determined to rescue them. Taking one of the steamer's boats and a crew of picked men, he rowed out into the storm, and through a tremendous sea, until he reached the piles to which the men were clinging. Eleven persons were saved, including Captain Ottinger of the Winslow. About a month later the brig Sultan was lost in Lake Erie, and Captain McKay rescued the only person who escaped. For those heroic actions the citizens of Cleveland presented him with a handsome gold chronometer, suitably inscribed, which the Captain still wears.
In the wreck of the Morning Star in 1868 all that were saved owed their lives to the prompt action of Captain McKay, who took the survivors aboard the R.N. Rice. On August 6, 1874, the R.N. Rice took an excursion party from Sandwich to Put-in-Bay, and after reaching the latter place Captain McKay saw a little child fall into the lake from the steamer's side. He immediately sprung into the water, and succeeded in bringing the little one, a girl, to the surface, and she was taken aboard the boat not much the worse for the accident. The child was found to be the daughter of F.W. Whitelaw, of Windsow, and a few days afterward a large party of Windsor citizens boarded the Rice and presented Captain McKay with a gold-headed cane.
The schooner Cecelia Jeffery went down to her anchors off Cleveland about eleven o'clock on the night of November 17, 1874, and the crew took to the rigging, whence they were rescued by Captain McKay and his men after the custom-house officers had made an unsuccessful attempt to reach them. It was in the wreck of the Caspian off Cleveland that he saved the Misses Snow, of Pittsburg, and Miss McGregor, of Toronto, from drowning; and while sailing this same boat he rescued a lady and child who had fallen into Buffalo creek. He also saved a man and a boy in Detroit a few years ago, and, all told, he has saved some seventy- three lives.
During the wreck of the Caspian he made the acquaintance of Captain Stanard, who wished our subject to go as mate with him on the Cleveland (then the Western World), and on that vessel Captain Stanard died in Captain McKay's arms. When the Western World commenced running there were no express messengers on the lake vessels, and the mates received twenty dollars per month extra for looking after the express business. While on the steamers Ocean and May Queen, Captain McKay passed safely through the crooked channel of the Maumee river, where it was deemed impossible for a large vessel to pass. David Carter was clerk on the Ocean at the time. It is, therefore, no wonder that one who has known the Captain for many years should say to him: "He is a man of wonderful nerve, few words and great deliberation."
Few men of his profession have earned so enviable a record, and his declining years are made pleasant with the recollection of duty faithfully performed, and with the respect and esteem of the thousands of people who have journeyed on the vessels under his command.
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This version of Volume II is based, with permission, on the work of the great volunteers at the Marine Captains Biographies site. To them goes the credit for reorganizing the content into some coherent order. The biographies in the original volume are in essentially random order.
Some of the transcription work was also done by Brendon Baillod, who maintains an excellent guide to Great Lakes Shipwreck Research.