Lightning is an exceptinoal example of an extreme Clipper. One of the largest Clippers ever conceived, with an especially noticeable concavity of 16 ft across the deck of the vessel as an experiment in speed, she was built by the famed Donald McKay of Boston. Unusually, Lightning was commissioned by the Black Ball Line primarily for passengers, and as such her interior was sumptuously decorated with tropical wood, marble, stained glasses and gilded leaf. Her size allowed luxurious space while also preventing too much rolling in the heavy seas on the passage to Australia. With any excesses unusual for Clippers, who were often stripped down for speed and cost-saving, Lighting proved different in almost every regard, even printing its own newspaper for the passengers, The Lightning Gazette. Lightning is illustrative of McKay’s pride in his largest and most intensely designed ships.
On the occasion that her hollow bow was filled in by her captain in Liverpool, McKay furiously denounced the whole city, complaining of the ‘wood butchers of Liverpool’ even though he didn’t own the ship! The protective attitude on display here is yet another example of the fact that Clippers were often treated as far more than commercial vessels even by their contemporaries. Under the captain James ‘Bully’ Forbes the ship was extremely fast for its size, making New York to Liverpool in under 14 days, and managing 436 miles in 24 hours, although as his nickname suggests Forbes pushed his crew to the very limit and was probably rather unpopular. As with almost all extreme Clippers, Lightning ended her days on the sea floor when in 1869 she caught fire carrying wool and tallow off the Australian coast, an event that was miraculously captured on photograph. The shoal formed by her scuttled remains still retains here name to this day, Lightning Shoals.