How do we know what the Flying Cloud looked like?


Since no photographs of the Flying Cloud have ever been found there is no way to be sure what the ship looked like.  Likewise, no “original plans” for the Flying Cloud drawn by Donald McKay or drawn by someone in his shipyard have been found.  The later is not surprising since McKay generally did not make plans for his ships – instead he carved a half hull model which was used to create the lines used in a mould loft to create the templates with which the ship’s parts were cut.  There was at least on exception to the above. McKay, or someone in his shipyard, drew up a set of hull plans for the sister ships Star of Empire and Chariot of Fire for a newspaper advertisement and McKay was likely involved in Duncan McLean’s pamphlet on the Great Republic which included detailed hull plans.  So maybe some plans of photographs for the Flying Cloud with show up some day but until then we have to make due with what we know about.


A number of paintings and drawings were done within a few years of the Flying Cloud being launched.  The most famous of these paintings was turned into a lithograph by Currier and Ives

. One painting and one drawing were done in China, the paining by an unknown Chinese artist for the captain of the Flying Cloud in about 1852 and titled Flying Cloud in Whampoa Anchorage and the drawing was done by Edward Meyer Kern in 1854 with the title The Flying Cloud Lying off Whampoa.  Both of these images were likely done from life, and thus, likely provide good representations as to what the ship looked like early in her career.  There are some inconsistencies in the images, for example the Kern drawing shows the Flying Cloud with trailboards yet Duncan McLean’s detailed article about the launching of the Flying Cloud specifically said that the ship did not have trailboards. The images are not detailed enough to be used to develop plans for a model.  Also, since the artists were interested in producing a visualization instead of an engineering drawing it is not likely that the paintings are all that accurate in their details.


The earliest engineering quality representation of the Flying Cloud, or at least of its hull, dates to the late 1850s or early 1860s.  It is a body plan with lines and a small sail plan. An analysis of the drawing by Bruce and Gardner Lane in the April 1982 issue of American Neptune concluded that the drawing may have been created by Mary McKay, Donald McKay’s second wife, from information in her husband’s files for a book that Donald McKay was planning to write.  Copies of this plan are available from the Clarke Collection at the MIT Museum.  A reduced version of the same plan was published in Henry Hall’s 1884 Report on the Ship-Building Industry of the United States, Mr. Hall likely got the original drawing from Mrs. McKay since Hall thanks her in his book for “data in relation to the famous clipper ships built by her husband during his lifetime.”   This drawing also agrees with the information in the McLean article as to the dimensions of the Flying Cloud’s hull. Based on the consistency with the McLean article and on the Lane analysis I think it is reasonable to assume that this drawing accurately represents the details of the shape of the Flying Cloud’s hull.


Developing detailed plans for the Flying Cloud’s rigging is less of an issue.  The rough sail plan included in the McKay plan and the Currier and Ives lithograph show the arrangement of sails.  Clipper ship rigging was generally consistent between ships and is well described in a number of contemporary books including George Biddlecombe’s 1848 The Art of Rigging, John McLeod Murphy and W. N. Jeffers’s 1849 Spars and Rigging and Darcy Lever’s 1853 The Young Sea Officer's Sheet Anchor.  Peter Force also published a compressive rigging list for U.S. Navy sailing craft in 1826. 


Developing a plan for the Flying Cloud’s deck is more difficult.  Some specific information is available from the McLean article, including the length of the forecastle and poop deck as well as the dimensions of the main house on the deck. Hall’s 1883 Notebooks for shipbuilding in the United States, 1881-1883 - Volume II, Models and Measurements provides a full set of information about the sizes of all of the wood parts that went into the Flying Cloud’s hull. Thus, with the McKay plan, the McLean article and the Hall notebook we can develop a detailed set of plans for the ship’s hull.  But none of these references provides any information about the Flying Cloud’s deck furniture so we will have to look elsewhere for this information.


The early Flying Cloud images do not show the deck furniture in any useful detail.  The earliest representation of the deck of the Flying Cloud that I’ve been able to locate is on the dramatic 1916 model by the Horace E. Boucher Manufacturing Company currently being displayed in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.  The tag for the model says that the model construction was “supervised by a former officer of Flying Cloud” and used “McKay’s original drawings”.   But, as noted above, there were no such original drawings.  The Museum’s 1957 ship model catalogue identified the former officer as Captain Arthur H. Clark, author of The Clipper Ship Era, sailing ship captain and a friend of Donald McKay.   While Clark was never an officer on the Flying Cloud (based his own listing of his experience) and may have never seen the actual ship, he was very knowledgeable about clipper ships so the resulting model is likely a good representation of a clipper ship of the period and may actually represent the Flying Cloud itself.  In any case, this model seems to be what some of the early draftsman used as a basis for their plans of the Flying Cloud.  This was the case with the earliest plan I have been able to locate.  F. Alexander Magoun drew up a set of plans of the Flying Cloud for MIT in 1926. The deck, sail and rigging arrangements on these plans matches the Boucher model.  Magoun included his Flying Cloud plans in his 1928 book The Frigate Constitution and other Historic Ships.  He also included photographs of the Boucher model in the book so it is clear that Magoun knew about the model.  Magoun also notes on his body plan that it was “drawn from a study of early prints, records and models of the ship”.  Other early plans for making a model of the Flying Cloud including the 1928 plans from Popular Mechanics, and the 1928 plans from Boucher itself seem to have been based on the model or the Magoun plans. I came to the conclusion that, while we may never know what the ship actually looked like, using the Boucher model (and Magoun plans based on the model) for the deck, sail and rigging arrangements along with the McKay plan for the shape of the hull will produce as good a set of plans as is likely possible unless someone discovers a cache of misplaced photographs from the 1850s. 


The set of plans on this website was developed using the materials described above plus information from additional sources which I have listed on the individual sheets.


I should also note that George Campbell’s 1974 book China Tea Clippers, William L. Crothers’s 1997 book The American-Built Clipper Ship 1850-1856, and Harold Underhill’s 1946 book Masting and Rigging the Clipper Ship and Ocean Carrier and are great resources for anyone building a model of any clipper ship.


© Scott Bradner June 2020