Born in Pittsfield, McKay invented a shoe nailing and shoe lasting machine, and vastly improved a shoe sewing machine. He organized a company for the manufacture and leasing of shoe making machinery, creating a strict monopoly of that business. These inventions revolutionized the shoe industry and brought him millions.
At an early age he had gained an enviable reputation as a civic, church and social leader. Before he was 30, McKay realized Pittsfield should have a public water supply,. In 1850 he became chairman of a committee of three who recommended purchase of Ashley Lake. This was done, and Ashley to this day is one of the main sources of Pittsfield’s gravity supply.
In 1851 McKay was a member of a special committee to build a new First Congregational Church to replace the old Bulfinch Church. His civic involvement seemed endless – Chief of Pittsfield Fire Department – member of a committee that arranged for the big Berkshire Jubilee in 1844 – member of a committee that helped to build the Old Berkshire Medical College on South Street.
His original home was located on the corner of South and East Housatonic Streets. His last
known gift to the city was the iron fence surrounding the Old Pittsfield General Hospital (House of Mercy). At the time of his death, his estate of more than $25,000,000 was bequeathed to Harvard University.
His remains are in a magnificent mausoleum, designed by Mary E. Tillinghast, and constructed ten years before McKay’s death.