Unhappy Holiday for Christmas Tree Wreck

December is a fitting time for me to respond to a reader’s question about Lake Michigan’s Christmas Tree Wreck. Can you imagine one’s shock and chagrin upon learning of the loss of an entire crew and ship’s cargo of more than 5,000 trees one month prior to Christmas? That’s what happened to the 130-foot schooner Rouse Simmons on November 23, 1912.

Capt. Herman Schuenemann took a chance sailing his three-masted wooden vessel from Manistique, Michigan, to Chicago during stormy November. It was late in the month and he was fearful the trees would lose their value if they weren’t delivered on time. The captain ordered his crew to lower 5,000 trees into the hold and pile an additional 500 on to the deck. As the ship sailed south, passing the shores of Algoma, Wisconsin (Schuenemann’s hometown), the weather turned nasty. Witnesses from shore noted the schooner was sitting lower in the water than usual, but surmised this was due to snow and ice that had accumulated on the additional trees stored on deck. But as the Rouse Simmons continued south toward Kewaunee, Wisconsin, lifesavers at the United States Lifesaving Station spotted a distress flag and launched a rescue boat. But it was forced to turn back when the crew encountered a fierce snow squall. When the snow cleared, the Simmons had disappeared on the horizon. All 17 hands were lost and there were no evidence of exactly where it sank.

In 1971, Kent Bellrichard, an accomplished Great Lakes diver, was searching for another vessel when he discovered the Rouse Simmons. Located 13 miles off the coast of Kewaunee, the ship was easy to identify by the remains of some Christmas trees still secured to the deck. The ship sits upright with its bow pointing north. Bellrichard believes this might indicate the captain steered in that direction to seek safety along the Kewaunee shoreline.

Although the ship’s wooden deck has collapsed, the hull remains intact. A 140 to 165 foot dive, the Christmas Tree Wreck still holds some of its cargo, but the remaining trees and ship’s artifacts are covered with zebra mussels. Keen eyes can spot the windlass, deadeyes, pans, dishes, chains, broken masts and the rudder post with a centerboard. Some of the trees remain, but most of them washed ashore throughout the years. Visibility averages 50 to 60 feet. Currents usually pose no problem, while water temperatures range around the mid-40s F.

Two of the trees and several other Rouse Simmons artifacts—including the ship’s wheel—were salvaged for exhibit at the Rogers Street Fishing Village Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The ship’s anchor was retrieved for display at the Milwaukee Yacht Club. The remains of the wreck are protected by the Abandoned Shipwreck Act and the site is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

About Ellsworth Boyd

Ellsworth Boyd, Professor Emeritus, College of Education, Towson University, Towson, Maryland, pursues an avocation of diving and writing. He has published articles and photo's in every major dive magazine in the US., Canada, and half a dozen foreign countries. An authority on shipwrecks, Ellsworth has received thousands of letters and e-mails from divers throughout the world who responded to his Wreck Facts column in Sport Diver Magazine. When he's not writing, or diving, Ellsworth appears as a featured speaker at maritime symposiums in Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, New York and Philadelphia. "Romance & Mystery: Sunken Treasures of the Lost Galleons," is one of his most popular talks.
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12 Responses to Unhappy Holiday for Christmas Tree Wreck

  1. I love to read adventure books., “not” romace books. A friend of mine had several Clive Cussler books, so I started reading them. I’m not really big on discription of ships, air planes and small water devices used in the stories, but I just read through to get to main story…”And” I like the fact that there’s no sex stuff to speak of, just suggestions here and there…we all know that the main hero (Kurt Austin) has to have a lady friend.
    Thanks for good reading.

  2. Thanks for your post. You have good taste. I’m not big on the sex stuff either which some readers thrive on. The details of the ships, planes, water devices, etc. are written in simply to give the readers a picture in their minds of what the surroundings are like and sets things up for the action. Lots of readers don’t realize the tremendus amount of research that writers put in so they can “paint” these pictures. Clive, Dirk and some of the other writers do a really good job with this. Best regards, Ellsworth Boyd

  3. Maria Jesus Barroso Feliu says:

    Quisiera un correo electronico donde pudiera mandar una foto, que creo que es de una brujula antigua de un barco de alrededor del año 1900, para su identificacion y valoracion. Mi correo electronico es chusbf42@hotmail.com

  4. Julie Ross says:

    Regarding the Despatch dive, when do you expect to go on this expedition? I’m a photographer and I would be willing to contribute my talents in this area.

  5. Maria: I think you are askng about a shipwreck off Antigua. Can you translate it for me? Thanks

    Julie: We are probably going in early to mid-October for aproximately five days. Yes, a photograher would be great. Stay in touch with me and I wll give you more details later. Best regards, Ellsworth

  6. Sharon Clarke says:

    I found Clive Cusslers books when I was desparate for something to read. I am an avid reader with many likes. I am now collecting every Cussler I can get my hands on – I will probably read then over many times in the future – and I am not going to lend them to anyone for fear of not getting them back as has happened in the past. I love everything about all of his books. I am half way through Sea Hunter 2 – took me about 10 hours to carefully read Sea Hunter. My husband and I have been Civil War buffs for many years and have many CW items in our home. He is also a Citadel grad so Charleston is a favorite place to go. We have not seen the Hunley yet but will now make a trip and take our 10 yr old grandson to see it. Thank you all for sharing your love of searching for our history with us. It makes me feel like I am a part of it all. Sharon

  7. Thank you for your kind words. Yes, Clive’s Sea Hunter books are exciting and remain my favorites. If course you can guess why—being about ships and shipwrecks! My wife and I plan to go to Charleston this summer. We have never been. As you say, lots of history there! And it is as you say: “…searching for our history”–it is so much fun and something new and exciting always turns up. Best regards, E.B. Wreckmaster

  8. Barbara A. Bates says:

    I am just new at reading a book that Clive Cussler wrote, “Polar Shift”. It starts out moving right along. I hate author’s who get toooo discriptive and the story movies too slow. This book gets your interest right away and you want to keep reading. I also am a avid reader, I feel lost if I am not reading a novel. I like trying different author’s and so far Clive Cussler writings are good. I probably will read more of his books.

  9. David W. says:

    I am a total diving and shipwreck fan, and am going to find these Cussler books ASAP. I found the Friends of the Hunley website totally by chance, and couldn’t peel my eyes off until I had read through most of it. The animation about the recovery is amazing! The efforts and work involved in such a sensitive operation, in such a difficult and unpredictable environment, are mind-boggling – hats totally off to your total success! These sites are great, I will be back for more! :-)

  10. You are indeed a true shipwreck buff. Your analysis of the recoveries, sensitivity of the operations, and evaluation of the harsh environments show much knowledge and perception. Keep up your enthusiasm! Ellsworth Boyd, Wreckmaster

  11. Granny Rene says:

    I have been in love with Cussler’s books since the late 1970s when ‘Raise the Titanic!’ made the best seller list. Dirk Pitt is my hero!
    We are visiting the Hunley next weekend (cost is only $12.00/ticket with discounts for seniors, military, etc.). It is available for us to learn from and appreciate only because Clive persevered and kept searching and providing the means for others to continue when he could not be there. The Sea Hunters I and II are fantastic accounts of historic wrecks and searches with the stories a combination of fact and fiction.

  12. Thanks for your note. I had lunch with Clive on Oct. 5 at his son, Dirk’s home, in Paradise Valley, AZ. Clive and Dirk both came to the Clive Cussler Collectors’ Society banquet at the Millenium Hotel Resort in Scottsdale on Oct. 6 where I was the featured speaker. You are so fortunate to be visiting the Hunley soon. Write back and tell us about it. You should have seen the Hunley table that was auctioned off at the convention. It was part of an estate left by a member who passed away. The Hunley table included many Clive Cussler books and memorabilia, all related to the vessel that Clive discovered. Yes, I love the Seahunters I & II also. Clive is the greatest of storytellers! Cheers! Ellsworth

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