Captain Jesse Thayer Carver of Searsport gambled everything he owned on a single ship and one voyage, one that could make or break him. The ship was the down-easter St. Mary, her destination San Francisco, and Carver was to be her master. The big challenge was to round Cape Horn.

Carver was born into a seafaring family on North Haven island in Maine on March 26, 1833. At an early age, Jesse Carver went to sea, like his brothers, cousins, uncles and ancestors and eventually became captain in 1861, at the age of 28, of the brig John Henry.

His next vessel was brig Harriet H. McGilvery, just after marriage to Evelina W. Nichols (1835-1913) from another seafaring family. For seven years, he was captain of the bark Talavera until 1875. There was brief service aboard the ship Matilda in 1875, but then no records are found of him for the next seven years until 1882, when he became master of the ship Richard P. Buck until 1889. That ended in disaster when drunken sailors set fire to it while at anchor at St. Georges, Bermuda. The Bath-built 1,567-ton full-rigger was a total loss and considered a mark against Carver’s name and reputation.

Carver’s final ship was the recently built Downeaster St. Mary, launched from Charles V. Minott’s Phippsburg shipyard. Downeasters were wider and larger vessels than the earlier clipper ships, capable of carrying large amounts of cargo. They also required less crew.

The St. Mary was 242 feet in length, 42 feet wide and 18 feet deep in her hold. Her keel and frame were white oak and her other timbers made of yellow pine.

By 1890, however, large wooden ships like the St. Mary were considered risky investments to build, own and operate. But fortunes could still be made. Minott and Carver staked their hopes and finances on the Downeaster’s success. The St. Mary cost $159,000 to build and Minott held the largest number of shares, his son and two daughters each got 1/64, while Carver also held a substantial interest.

The 57-year-old Carver wagered everything he owned on the St. Mary and her upcoming voyage. On Jan. 13, 1890, he sent Minott a check for $12,000, representing his life’s savings. When the St. Mary left under tow for New York City in April 1890, Carver owned 1/4 of the vessel and still owed Minott another $10,000. That note was due in December after their successful voyage. Carver had nine months to make good his financial roll of the dice. The voyage would make or break him.

The St. Mary carried a cargo of coal, whiskey, iron pipe, boxes of tacks, and toy trains for a San Francisco Christmas. Her regular-sized crew numbered between 20 and 30, including a mate or chief officer, carpenter, steward, and stewardess.

For 57 days, the weather held fair and the ship proved nimble and swift. Carver thought she could make 12 knots. But unbeknownst to him, they were on a collision course with another vessel off Cape Horn, the British ship Magellan.

In fact, there were at least 10 other vessels in the vicinity of each other and Cape Horn that night, nine on the port tack making their way slowly northwards. The St. Mary had not yet come about and so bore down on the ships as they all battled westerly winds. They were about 130 miles west of Diego Ramirez islands, which lie about 65 miles west-southwest of Cape Horn.

There was a moon that night and seas relatively calm for winter waters around the Horn. Still, conditions were such that Carver’s decision to turn in was seen as partly responsible for what happened next. Another captain, it was suggested, would have kept the deck all night.

Carver turned in around midnight, but shortly after 1 a.m. was called by the mate with the words ‘Here’s a fellow who won’t keep off.’ The captain later wrote he had no sooner gotten on deck when he saw Magellan’s jib-boom over the end of St. Mary’s main yard. ‘This is one of the most stupid accidents that I ever saw.’

The ship could have easily maneuvered, if Carver had had ample warning from his mate, but now it was too late. The collision crippled the St. Mary while Magellan careened off and sank. None of her crew survived.

Winds and waves picked up and St. Mary’s crew toiled day and night on deck or at the pumps. For four days, they made their way eastward towards Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. By Aug.10, as they neared their goal, Carver sought some rest.

According to one source, he gave orders at 5 p.m. to the steward not to be disturbed. Thus, he was not awakened, when later that night the ship’s course was changed from ENE to North, which pointed the vessel directly towards land.

At some point, Carver came up on deck and immediately ordered the helm about, but again was too late and the St. Mary struck and hung on a partially submerged outcrop called Pinnacle Rock. As the tide went down, the St. Mary’s fate was sealed.

If Carver had hoped to salvage some of his finances by getting the stricken ship and cargo safely to Port Stanley, he now knew without a doubt he was ruined. The St. Mary was a complete loss just five months from her launching and he was financially ruined.

Officers and crew decided to abandon the vessel and make their way by ship boats, first to the small settlement of Fitzroy, then on to Port Stanley. But Carver would not leave the vessel and threatened to shoot anyone who tried to make him. They left him alone onboard.

Two days after the crew landed at Port Stanley, a working party from the settlement returned to the St. Mary. They found Carver’s dead body in his cabin, the only death recorded from this shipwreck. His remains were eventually sent to Montevideo where an inquest was held, but most sources remain non-committal about how Carver died. This silence may perhaps have been due to Minott’s influence. Carver’s life insurance was paid out to his wife which in turn helped pay Carver’s outstanding note to Minott. Carver’s body was eventually returned to Searsport and buried in Elmwood Cemetery Feb. 22, 1892.

The St. Mary was considered a total loss. The vessel had come to rest on rocks, sitting level on her keel. One visitor likened her position to a book on its spine. Very quickly, the ship broke in half down its middle, where three rows of deck beams pointed upwards, the main deck and two lower decks. The cargo, what was left of it, was easily gotten to and locals made good use of it.

For years, the St. Mary was known around the Falkland Islands as the ‘Christmas wreck’ due to the large quantities of toys found aboard. Many were toy metal train locomotives, which spread holiday cheer to islander children, who were overwhelmed with presents that December 1890.

The story of the St. Mary did not end in 1890. While she rested among the other numerous shipwrecks scattered about the Falkland Islands, she was not forgotten. Nearly 90 years later, efforts were initiated to bring her back to the state of Maine. And that’s another chapter to this story!

Charles Lagerbom teaches AP US History at Belfast Area High School and lives in Northport. He can be contacted at clagerbom@rsu71.org. He is author of "Whaling in Maine" available through Historypress.com.