On November 22nd, 1912, the three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons departed from the dock at Thompson, Michigan, in that state’s upper peninsula, and headed south into Lake Michigan. The Rouse Simmons’ cargo hold and deck were filled with evergreen trees, bound for Chicago, where they would be sold for use as Christmas trees. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, several ships would make November runs to Chicago with Christmas tree cargos and sell them at that city’s docks. There was plenty of demand for the product, but these end of the shipping season runs were not without risks.
Powerful November storms on the Great Lakes have sunk many ships over the years. Indeed, the captain of the Rouse Simmons, Herman E. Schuenemann, had been personally touched by tragedy from a November storm. in November 1898, Herman’s brother August Schuenemann died when his ship, the schooner S. Thal, sank in a storm in Lake Michigan off the Illinois coast. The S. Thal’s cargo was Christmas trees.
Nonetheless, Captain Schuenemann continued the Christmas tree runs, selling the trees right from his ship at the Clark Street dock in Chicago. Schuenemann did not just sell trees, he also was known for donating them to those in need, and the Chicago newspapers referred to him as “Captain Santa”.
Rouse Simmons History
The Rouse Simmons was a wooden, 205 ton three masted schooner built in Milwaukee and launched in 1868. It was approximately 124 feet long. The ship’s most common cargo was lumber. By 1912, it was still in service but showing its age. Some would later question its seaworthiness.
As the Rouse Simmons headed towards Chicago on November 22nd, a storm was brewing that escalated into one of the Great Lakes’ infamous November storms that sank several ships. On the 23rd, a sailing ship believed to be the Rouse Simmons was spotted off the coast of Kewaunee, Wisconsin by the Life Saving Station crew at that location. The vessel’s sails were shredded from the high winds and it was flying its flag at half mast, a distress signal. The ship was headed south and while the Kewaunee station did not have a rescue ship available, the crew did telephone the next station at Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The Two Rivers crew headed out into the storm in the station’s power boat, but could not find the Rouse Simmons in the deteriorating weather conditions and visibility.
Captain Shuenemann’s family waited patiently at the dock in Chicago for the Rouse Simmons to make port. At first, it was assumed the ship put into a safe harbor to wait out the storm. But as the delay grew into several days, the situation became alarming. Other ships that were delayed were sailing into Chicago; the captain of one vessel that followed the route of the Rouse Simmons reported he did not see the ship and doubted it could have survived the fury of the storm. When Christmas trees were reported to be washing ashore along the Wisconsin coastline, hope was abandoned and replaced with the grim reality that the Rouse Simmons had sunk with the loss of all hands. Estimates vary on the death toll, but the best evidence is that 16 or 17 perished.
In 1924, fisherman working their nets on Lake Michigan off the Wisconsin coast pulled up a men’s wallet wrapped in a water proof oilskin that had preserved the wallet and its contents. It was Captain Schuenemann’s wallet.
The location of the wreck remained a mystery until October 1971, when a scuba diver looking for another vessel found the resting place of the Rouse Simmons. The wreck lies 12 miles northeast of Two Rivers in 165 feet of water. It is well preserved in an upright position, its cargo hold still filled with Christmas trees that were never delivered. In 2007, the ship was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
“Arrive in Port Crusted With Ice” Chicago daily Tribune December 8th, 1912.
“‘Christmas Ship’ Lost on the Lake with 17 on Board” Chicago Daily Tribune, December 5th, 1912.
The Christmas Tree Ship: Captain Herman E. Schuenemann and the Schooner Rouse Simmons. Prologue Magazine, National Archives and Records Administration, Winter 2006, Vol. 38, No. 4.
“Christmas Tree Ship Listed on National Register of Historic Places” University of Wisconsin Aquatic Sciences Center Press Release May 9th 2007.
Great Lakes Shipwrecks & Survivors by William Ratigan.Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1977.
Wisconsin Historical Society Shipwreck Database. Vessel Detail Information for Rouse Simmons.