James H. McKay, 76, designed bay model

December 04, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

James H. McKay, who helped design and later oversaw construction and operation of the Chesapeake Bay Hydraulic Model on Kent Island, died of renal failure Sunday at his Easton home. He was 76.

Born in Baltimore and raised in the Walbrook area, Dr. McKay was a 1944 graduate of Charlotte Hall Military Academy in St. Mary's County. He enlisted in the Air Force and was assigned to the Philippines, serving as a navigator aboard B-29 bombers in the later months of World War II.

After returning to Baltimore, he attended the Johns Hopkins University on the GI Bill and earned a bachelor's degree in biology in 1952. He earned a master's degree and in 1967 a doctorate in environmental engineering there.

Dr. McKay worked on construction of Liberty Dam and the Harbor Tunnel before joining the Army Corps of Engineers in 1967 as an engineer.

One of the most challenging projects of his career was the design and operation of the Chesapeake Bay Hydraulic Model at Matapeake Landing on Kent Island. The project had its roots in the late 1960s, when Maryland's then-Rep. Rogers C.B. Morton proposed building a bay model that would allow scientists to study its cycles in detail.

The $13 million concrete model, dedicated in 1977, encompassed 9 acres and depicted in minute detail the topography of the bay and its tributaries. A series of pumps and electronics could simulate, for instance, a year of bay tidal cycles in four days.

In a 1969 interview with the old News American, Dr. McKay explained the need for the model: "Here is an estuary on which there are three major cities, Baltimore, Washington and Richmond -- the only one in the world with three large cities. Now when you consider the predicted expansion, in this area the pressures on the bay will be fantastic. ... We have a chance now to get a handle on the bay, before it gets too far gone; we shouldn't miss it."

"He knew it was important to get the model built and operated," said Ted Robinson, a retired Corps engineer and colleague. "He was always very proud of what it could do, and I think his heart was always with it."

Tom J. Filip, retired assistant chief of the regulatory branch of the Corps of Engineers, recalled Dr. McKay's easygoing demeanor and willingness to mentor younger members of the staff. "Whenever I needed to know something about the bay, I'd go to Jim. And if he didn't know the answer, he knew the person who did. He enjoyed what he did, and his personal knowledge of the bay was extensive," he said.

"It drew schoolchildren and visitors from around the world, including Princess Anne," said Dr. McKay's wife of 48 years, the former Mary Patricia Maxwell.

Changing technology and the development of computer programs that could factor in the effects of wind on the bay, which the hydraulic model could not, helped doom the facility. It closed in 1983.

Dr. McKay spent the last four years of his career in charge of dams and reservoirs in Maryland, Pennsylvania and New York that were under the control of the Baltimore District of the Corps of Engineers. He retired in 1987.

Dr. McKay, a former Rodgers Forge resident, moved to Easton in 1983. He enjoyed exploring the Tidewater region aboard his classic Chesapeake Bay workboat, Sweet Patricia II.

Years earlier, he had constructed an ocean kayak.

"He built it on the dining room table, and then he realized he couldn't get it out of the house. So he had to take it apart and reassemble it," said a daughter, Carol M. Barth of Parkville.

Mr. McKay also earned a pilot's license and enjoyed flying Piper Cherokees, family members said.

Services are private.

In addition to his wife and daughter, Mr. McKay is survived by a son, James H. McKay III of Hamilton; another daughter, Penny M. Kelley of Rodgers Forge; a sister, Cathyrn Sutley Swann of Baltimore; and three grandsons.

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