Launched on October 4, 1853 Great Republic is noteworthy as the largest wooden clipper ship ever constructed.
Designed by naval architect and shipbuilder Donald McKay as a four-deck four-masted medium clipper barque, Great Republic—at 4,555 tons registry—was intended to be the most profitable wooden sailing ship ever to ply the Australian gold rush and southern oceans merchant trade. The ship's launch was planned for September 4, 1853—builder Donald McKay's birthday—but it was postponed to October 4 due to problems with the timber supplies. The City of Boston made the launch a public holiday. Between 30,000 and 50,000 spectators attended, among them Ferdinand Laeisz of the Flying P-Line of Hamburg. The ship was christened by Captain Alden Gifford using a bottle of pure Cochituate water. The ship's name was drawn from the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. After outfitting, Great Republic sailed in ballast from Boston to New York, where in December 1853 her first cargo was loaded.
Great Republic required "1,500,000 feet of pine ... 2,056 tons of white oak, 336½ tons of iron, and 56 tons of copper" - about three times as much pine as was typically required for a large clipper ship.
On December 26, 1853 a fire broke out in the buildings of the Novelty Baking Company on Front Street near the piers where Great Republic and several other wooden merchant vessels were moored. The fire quickly spread to the packet ship Joseph Walker, and to the clippers White Squall, Whirlwind, and Red Rover, with sparks from the fire showering onto the deck of the Great Republic, whose crew was mustered shortly after midnight to unsuccessfully dowse the sails. The first three ships were destroyed; Red Rover was damaged, and Great Republic burnt to near the waterline and was scuttled at dawn to save her hull at dock. Bloated by grain which burst her seams, Great Republic was declared a total loss, and Donald McKay, who was said never to have gotten over the tragic event, was compensated by insurers. The sunken hulk was sold by the insurance underwriters to Captain Nathaniel Palmer who salvaged and rebuilt it as a three-deck vessel with reduced masts.
Still the largest clipper ship in the world at 3,357 tons registry, Great Republic, under command of Captain Joseph Lymburner, started back in merchant service on February 24, 1855. Her maiden voyage brought her to Liverpool in 13 days.
Great Republic was "chartered by the French Government to bring munitions and troops to the Crimea," and served in the general cargo and guano trades. In 1862 the fourth mast was removed and the others re-rigged, and the clipper became a three-masted full-rigged ship, a so-called three-skysail-yarder. In 1864 Captain Lymburner retired and the ship's registry moved to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. In 1869 she was sold to the Merchants' Trading Company of Liverpool and renamed Denmark. She continued sailing until March 5, 1872 when a hurricane off Bermuda caused the ship to leak badly and she was abandoned.
During her 19-year merchant career, Great Republic proved to be very fast under leading breeze conditions and often out-distanced the fastest merchant steamers on Mediterranean routes. Sailing around Cape Horn, Great Republic averaged 17 knots (31 km/h) to set a record by logging 413 nautical miles (765 km) in a single day.
A wooden sailing vessel larger than Great Republic was launched nearly three decades earlier in June 1825: the 5,294-ton Baron of Renfrew was a disposable ship built for a single voyage from Quebec to London. There it would be dismantled and sold piecemeal to English shipbuilders at premium prices since large timbers were in short supply. The vessel itself was exempt from British taxes imposed on "oak and square pine timber cargoes" and thus gained an economic advantage. Unfortunately, Baron of Renfrew was wrecked as it was being towed toward London in a storm. Although reports differ, most indicate the timbers were recovered and sold, and the venture was ultimately successful. Nevertheless, when the British tax on timber cargoes was changed shortly afterwards, the economic advantage disappeared and disposable ship construction ceased.
Great Republic was the largest, but not the longest wooden sailing ship ever built. Despite her 400 ft length over all, the record of being the longest wooden ship is held by the six-masted schooner Wyoming built at the Percy & Small shipyard, Bath, Maine, in 1909. Her overall length including her 86 ft (26 m)-long jibboom and her protruding spanker boom was 450 ft (140 m), 334 ft (102 m) on deck.