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Remembering the sunken "Christmas Tree Ship" this Saturday.

Dec 02, 2021 07:24AM ● By Editor

Photo: Courtesy of Amy Meyer


By Emily Shedal for USA TODAY NETWORK - Wisconsin - December 1, 2021


It was a brisk and windy afternoon when the schooner Rouse Simmons departed Thompson, Michigan, bound for Chicago.

The vessel, which was owned by Capt. Herman Schuenemann, was weighed down with a load of Christmas trees. The Rouse Simmons received its nickname “The Christmas Tree Ship” from this holiday cargo she carried to southern Lake Michigan cities.

Fifteen people, including some local lumberjacks, would join Capt. Schuenemann on this fateful journey into the lake.

Captain Herman Schuenemann center stands with his Christmas trees along with L Vanaman left and Mr Colberg

The fate of the vessel would be shrouded in mystery for almost 60 years, until her final resting place was discovered.

The Rouse Simmons was built in 1868 by Milwaukee boat-builder Allan McClelland and Co. At 124 feet in length and three masts, the schooner was built specifically for lumber transportation.

Though it is commonly known as "Christmas Tree Ship," the vessel was named after southern Wisconsin businessman Rouse Simmons.

Her last voyage would leave from Thompson, Michigan, on Nov. 12, 1912. Surely, her captain knew how dangerous the Great Lakes could be in November, but his chosen cargo needed to be delivered, so they sailed. The last time she would be seen was more than a week later as she passed by the life-saving station in Kewaunee with her distress flag flying.

A strong gale had caught ahold of her and was pushing her southward. The Kewaunee Life-Saving Station realized that at the rate the vessel was being pushed along, they did not have a chance to rescue the crew.

The Kewaunee station phoned the Two Rivers Life-Saving Station to let them know of the incoming vessel in distress.

The Rouse Simmons sits in dock with Christmas trees filling its deck in 1908

The crew at the Two Rivers station launched a boat to intercept the vessel, but did not succeed. The Two Rivers crew never saw Rouse Simmons and her crew, who had vanished into the lake. 

It has been said that the Rouse Simmons was lost in a vicious snowstorm, but that popular story is false when looking closely at documents from the time. The day was actually clear with 6-mile visibility. A snowstorm did take place the day the Rouse Simmons went down, but the storm did not start until 5 p.m., which was after the Rouse Simmons sank.

 Rouse Simmons under sail. From the Wisconsin Maritime Museum Collection

As for what happened in the final moments of the Rouse Simmons, we will never know. Since the wreckage was discovered, however, archaeologists have been able to put together a better idea of what happened. Underwater archaeologists discovered the vessel’s port anchor approximately 170 feet away from the ship. Archaeologists figure the crew released the anchor to try to hold the ship as it battled the wind. A majority of the deck plating of the vessel was missing, which archaeologists attribute to two factors: a large number of Christmas trees on the deck of the vessel and deck fasteners failing. Ultimately, large waves on the lake caused Rouse Simmons and her crew to sink.

The Rouse Simmons also known as the Christmas Tree Ship sank on Nov 23 1912 in Lake Michigan off the coast of Two Rivers and is one of the 39 known ships in the proposed Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary

The Rouse Simmons, also known as the Christmas Tree ship, sank on November 23, 1912, in Lake Michigan off the coast of Two Rivers.  To this day, trees are still piled on the ship.  Photo: Courtesy of Tamara Thomsen of the Wisconsin Historical Society.


As the story goes, Christmas trees were seen washing up along the shoreline for years to come after the Rouse Simmons sank. It has been said that when she sank she was carrying thousands of Christmas trees. To this day, trees are still piled on the ship. 

A part of the Rouse Simmons story that sometimes gets overlooked is its captain’s generosity. Capt. Schuenemann, also known as Capt. Santa, was known for giving trees to needy residents in Chicago. His generosity was highlighted in the newspapers of Chicago and he often kept clippings of the articles with him. 

As the Wisconsin Maritime Museum hosts its annual Christmas Tree Ship Day this Saturday, the day will serve as a remembrance of Rouse Simmons, her crew and her captain.

The anniversary of her sinking was Nov. 23. This year marked 109 years since the loss of Rouse Simmons. In honor of Capt. Schuenemann and his generosity, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum on Saturday will present nine trees to local nonprofit organizations and low-income families. The day will also feature a presentation about Rouse Simmons by state underwater archaeologist Tamara Thomsen, crafts for kids and a visit from Santa.

Join us for a day of remembrance of Rouse Simmons and her crew. The museum will be open from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Saturday and will have self-guided submarine tours available. Admission to the museum will be free Saturday.

Wisconsin Maritime Museum is at 75 Maritime Drive, Manitowoc, and online at wisconsinmaritime.org. Call the museum at 920-684-0218 for more information.


To see the original report and read related stories, follow this link to the Herald Times Reporter.  https://www.htrnews.com/story/entertainment/2021/12/01/lake-michigan-christmas-tree-ship-rouse-simmo...