The Rouse Simmons (aka: the Christmas Tree Ship) was a three-masted schooner famous for having sunk in a violent storm on Lake Michigan in 1912. The ship was bound for Chicago with a cargo of Christmas trees when it foundered off Two Rivers, Wisconsin, killing all on board.

The legacy of the schooner lives on in the area, with frequent ghost sightings where its final route is traced.

It was known as The Christmas Tree Ship and was one of many schooners to transport Michigan Christmas trees across the lake.

Herman Schuenemann, affectionately known as “Captain Santa“.

Lake Michigan Christmas Tree ship (photo by LM Historical)

Final Journey

Schuenemann loaded the schooner with 5,500 trees from Thompson Harbor near Manistique, Michigan and planned to make the week-long journey to Chicago. The difficult weather had discouraged his competitors from making their own journeys, and snow had covered the tree farms in Michigan and Wisconsin. He hoped that the resultant shortage of Christmas trees would lead to a huge profit and solve his financial problems.

By 1912, November already had a reputation for especially violent storms on the Great Lakes. November 1912, however, had been relatively quiet, with only one significant storm so far, which affected especially southeastern Michigan and northwestern Ohio. (The reports that say another storm had already taken many lives and ships that month are erroneous, confusing 1912 with the Big Blow of 1913.) Still, a second storm was brewing. The conditions of the day were very poor, with many ships anchoring in port for shelter to avoid being battered by the 60-mile-per-hour winds that could be anticipated in a November gale.

Lake Michigan Christmas Tree ship (photo by LM Historical)

Local legends say that some sailors refused to board the ship and that the vessel was unseaworthy. Two years earlier the schooner had been towed to port by The Grand Haven Tribune after it was found riding low in the water. Despite this the journey began at noon, with trees crammed into every possible corner of the ship. The weight of the trees was far above recommendations, especially in the bad winter weather, and was certainly going to contribute to the tragedy. During the night, with storms hitting the Simmons hard, two sailors were sent to check the lashings on deck. Both seamen were swept overboard by a giant wave that collected them, many bundled trees, and a small boat. Now that the schooner was slightly lighter and more maneuverable, Captain Schuenemann directed it towards Bailey’s Harbor. Suddenly, and tragically, the storms worsened; ice formed on the sodden trees and winds battered the hull.

When the Kewaunee Life Saving Station spotted the Rouse Simmons on 23 November 1912 it was low in the water with tattered sails, flying its flag at half mast to signal that it was in distress. Logs from the station show that a surfman spotted the Simmons at 2:50pm and alerted station keeper Nelson Craite. Craite found that the station’s gas tugboat had left earlier in the day and, at 3:10pm, Craite telephoned the nearest other Station. George E. Sogge of Two Rivers, located just south of Kewaun.

In December 1912 Christmas Trees and wreckage were reported ashore at Pentwater, Michigan.

In 1924 a fishing net trawled up a wallet belonging to Captain Schuenemann. The wallet, well preserved because it was wrapped in oilskin, contained business cards, a newspaper clipping and an expense memorandum.

In 1971 the wreck itself was discovered by scuba diver Gordon Kent Bellrichard.

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Lake Michigan Christmas Tree ship (photo by LM Historical)


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