San Francisco: The “Flying Cloud” Entering Port After Her Record Passage from New York in 1851


No one had ever heard of Sutter’s Mill, but after a few nuggets of gold were found nearby, this California landmark initiated such a stir that forty thousand prospectors swarmed west to stake their fortunes. California was never the same; neither was ocean shipping.

So feverish was the desire to pan for gold that would-be miners paid any amount to reach their destination. One could move overland, but that was a very long journey, and word had reached New York that the Indians still preferred scalps of the white man’s variety. So ship was the way to go.

The Flying Cloud, built by McKay in East Boston in 1851, was bought for $90,000 by the New York firm, Grinnell, Minturn and Company. The Flying Cloud stretched to 235 feet, with a breadth of 40 feet, 8 inches; she was registered at 1,783 tons, a daring tonnage for 1851.

But who was to dispute the genius of Donald McKay? The best sailors lined up to ship out on the Cloud, which was hastily pushed into the lucrative California trade. Her skipper, a tough Yankee, Captain Josiah P. Creesy, was admired by underwriters and ship-owners because he squeezed every bit of speed possible from a ship.

Three days out on the maiden voyage, Creesy had too much canvas up when a gale struck, and even though the Flying Cloud dropped a few spars to the decks, almost killing four seamen, the master still did not reduce his sail. Instead, he ordered carpenters to fashion new spars. A mutiny broke out, but Creesy was able to control it and put the offenders in irons. He also suspended his first officer for disobeying orders.

The Flying Cloud reached San Francisco in eighty-nine days, twenty-one hours, a record. Like so many crews, the Flying Cloud’s men jumped ship; in this case, to get away from Creesy and to find gold. Short-handed, the Flying Cloud sailed for China from San Francisco, and the suspended first mate took his passage back to New York to find a sea lawyer who would mount a case of brutality against Creesy.

Outward bound from Canton, the Flying Cloud passed another New York ship; they exchanged newspapers and mail, a common custom along the populated trade routes. To his amazement, Captain Creesy read his own obituary printed in a New York paper, saying that he had been lost at sea the second day out from San Francisco. The disgruntled first mate also read the obituary and dropped his lawsuit. When Creesy walked off the Flying Cloud in New York, alive and vigorous as ever, the former mate was so shocked that he was sure the invincible captain had returned from the dead to haunt him.

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John Stobart


19" x 32"