Shipwrecks

St Mary (1890-1890)

Today, little remains of the elegant American cargo vessel which ended her days at Whale Point, 6,000 miles from home on a stormy night in August 1890. But her story continues to loom large in the annals of sailing ships that engaged in trade around Cape Horn in the 19th Century during the golden age of sail.

The St Mary was one of a number of ‘Down Easters’ built in Maine between 1870 and 1900 and used mainly for the 19th Century California grain trade. Down Easters were modelled on clipper ships, with a similar bow, but with better cargo capacity.

Her story is unique, because she is one of the few Falkland wrecks to have met her fate on her maiden voyage and her demise financially ruined her captain and led to his death a few hours after she ran aground.

Key Facts:

fully rigged icon

Full-rigged sailing ship

Built: Maine, USA
Size: 242 feet long, 42 foot wide
Launched: Kennebec River, Phippsburg 20th March 1890
Fate: Wrecked after running onto a rock

The keel of St Mary was laid at the Minott shipyard, on the River Kennebec at Phippsburg, Maine, in the autumn of 1889. Her frame was made of white oak and her other timbers were yellow pine. When she was launched, less than six months later, a local newspaper approved: “The launch was a beauty…she is a remarkably built vessel…the best frame ever seen in these parts”.

But St Mary was also a high-risk venture. The age of steam was fast approaching and British-built, steel-hulled, square-riggers were starting to challenge Maine’s traditional wooden shipbuilders. St Mary was large and costly to build – $120,000 US dollars (more than $3.5 million today). To pay for her, a syndicate was formed. The shipbuilder, Charles V. Minott, also a wealthy local businessman with wide interests, was the largest investor, with the man who wanted to be her captain, Knox County, Maine, resident, Jesse Thayer Carver, who was 57, putting up $22,000 of his own money ($650,000 today).

Carver put $12,000 down in cash and borrowed $10,000 in a personal loan from Minott. It was a huge gamble. The $12,000 was the captain’s life savings. So, St Mary’s first voyage would literally make or break him. He was already in deep financial trouble due to the unfortunate demise of his previous vessel, the Richard P Buck: destroyed by a fire set by a drunken crew in Bermuda.

When St Mary was finished, she was taken to New York on May 3rd 1890 and loaded with a mixed cargo of coal, boxes of tacks, whisky, iron pipes and cast-iron toy trains. The trains were for sale as Christmas presents in her destination port of San Francisco. The job was worth $30,000 and she set sail on 30th May.

With ‘Captain’ Carver at the helm, and achieving 12 knots on a “proper breezy” day, St Mary made good time. After 10 weeks at sea, they arrived off Cape Horn on 6th August, 1890. Along the way, she had even managed to overtake another Minott-built ship, the James Drummond, which had left Philadelphia a fortnight before St Mary had sailed.

It was then that her luck ran out. Unlike steamships, that were able to take the more sheltered inside passage closer to shore, square-rigged sailing ships were forced to go round further outside. Exposing them to the full fury of the awesome seas and gale-force Westerlies. Sailing vessels were often severely damaged; masts carried away; deckhouses smashed; hulls strained and leaking by the pounding sea.

Photos © 2018 Mark Spicer

It wasn’t mother nature that did for Captain Carver, the Cape Horn weather was fair, it was a collision with another ship – the Magellan – which is said to have struck the St Mary on her port quarter at about one a.m. and carried away most of her sails and severely damaged her hull. Magellan, a slightly smaller cargo vessel than St Mary was fatally holed. She had been in a convoy of 10 ships heading north around the Cape. Built in East Boston in 1873, she was 178 feet long and 34 feet wide. According to a newspaper interview with Captain Carver, she sank like a stone with the loss of all hands. He described the incident as “One of the most stupid accidents that I ever saw”.

For the St Mary, with repairs urgently needed, there was only one place to go – The Falklands, and Port Stanley. But ‘lady luck’ was not riding with Carver or his crew that night. A fierce Cape Horn gale blew up and for the next three days and nights they battled the elements, just to stay afloat. Everyone, including the captain, was exhausted when the storm finally calmed down a bit.

At about 5:00pm on 10th August 1890, St Mary was south-east of the Falklands, running close to the shore, on a bearing for Port Stanley, with Captain Carver asleep in his cabin, having turned the helm over to his first mate. When he returned to the quarterdeck at about 8:00pm, he was warned by the ship’s carpenter that they were too close to land. The horrified master frantically ordered the mate to change course, but not soon enough to stop his vessel striking rocks to the northwest of Whale Point, 30-or-so miles from Stanley harbour.

Some accounts have the name of the rock as “Pinnacle Rock” but no definitive trace can be found of such a place. Locals say the area where she went aground is known as Whistle Point and Kelp Lagoon.

Whatever the true name, St Mary was stuck fast and as dawn broke on 11th August, 1890 everyone on board knew she was doomed. The crew lowered a lifeboat and prepared to head for Fitzroy, the nearest settlement. Captain Carver refused to join them and it is said he drew a revolver and threatened to “blow the brains out” of any man who tried to force him off his ship. He was last seen drinking a “reddish mixture”.

The following day, the carpenter returned to the wreck and found his captain dead, with “froth at his mouth”. His ship was ‘beyond repair’, less than five months after her launch and without completing a single voyage.

Partially successful attempts were made to salvage the St Mary’s cargo, but the principal beneficiaries were the children of the Falklands. As she began to break up in the surf, the iron toys she carried in her hold became Christmas presents for nearly every child in Stanley. Some may still exist.

Eventually, a large section of St Mary’s starboard side came ashore at Whale Point, while her masts, bowsprit and other wreckage spread over a six-mile stretch of rocky beach nearby.

St. Mary ship painting

‘The St Mary Approaching Cape Horn’
The painting is by England’s John Stobart, one of the world’s most renowned maritime artists, who sadly passed away on 2nd March, 2023, at the age of 93. Image copyright 1992 courtesy The Stobart Foundation.

But the wreckage that lies scattered in the Falklands is not all that remains of the unfortunate St Mary. Following a visit to the islands in 1978, by an American marine archaeologist and historian from Newcastle, Maine, Peter Throckmorton, a 40-foot, 30-ton section of the wreck was cut away and salvaged. It was transported, via the UK, more than 12,000 miles to the Maine State Museum at Augusta, where it can be seen preserved and on display to this day.

Also returned ‘home’ to Maine was the body of the unfortunate Captain Carver. He is buried in the Elmwood Cemetery in Searsport, Waldo County, Maine – 23 miles from where he was born in 1833.

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