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.