Simmons 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 and tourist attractions whereby its final route
is traced. It was known as The Christmas Tree Ship and was one
of many schooners to transport Christmas trees across the lake.
However, with railroads, highways, and tree farms proving much
more economical, the tree-shipping industry was on a steep
decline and they had stopped sailing by 1920.
The Rouse Simmons was built in Milwaukee in 1868 by Allan,
McClelland, & Company, and named after a Kenosha businessman
Rouse Simmons. The schooner was soon purchased by wealthy lumber
magnate Charles H. Hackley of Muskegon, Michigan and joined his
sizeable fleet. Hackley's ships served across most of Lake
Michigan's coastline, and the Rouse Simmons became a workhorse,
shipping lumber from company mills to several ports around the
lake for around 20 years. At its peak the schooner was making
almost weekly runs between Grand Haven and Chicago.
After its service for Hackley the ship exchanged hands several
times. Many similar schooners were also frequently sold and they
became known as "tramp ships". In 1910 Herman Schuenemann bought
an interest in the ship, expanding that to an eighth in 1912.
The other shares were owned by Captain Charles Nelson of
Chicago, who owned one eighth and would sail alongside
Schuenemann on the fatal journey, and three fourths (the
commanding share) were owned by Mannes J. Bonner, a businessman
from St. James, Michigan.
The "Christmas Tree Ship"
The Schuenemann brothers, Herman and August, had been trading
Christmas trees in Chicago since around the start of the 20th
century. August died in November 1898 aboard the S. Thal a
52-ton, two-masted schooner when it sank in a storm near
Glencoe, Illinois. His younger brother continued the family
business. While many rival traders had sold to wholesalers and
local grocers, Schuenemann sold directly to Chicago residents at
dockside by Clark Street Bridge. By cutting out the middleman in
this way the trees could be sold cheaply while still making a
profit. The venture used the slogan "Christmas Tree Ship: My
Prices are the Lowest", with electric Christmas lights and a
tree atop the main mast. The trees were sold for between 50
cents and $1, but Herman Schuenemann, affectionately known as
"Captain Santa", also gave away some of the trees to needy
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.
Already by 1912, November 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 mph winds
that could be anticipated in a November gale.
Local legends say that some sailors refused to board the ship
and that the vessel was unseaworthy. Two years previous 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 Kewaunee, sent out
the power boat Tuscarora on a rescue mission, but the Simmons
was not seen again.
The Simmons was not the only ship to go down during the storm,
with the South Shore, the Three Sisters, and the Two Brothers
suffering similar fates.
Wreck and debris
A message in a bottle from the Rouse Simmons washed onto the
shore at Sheboygan. It had been corked using a small piece of
cut pine tree and, other than the occasional trees caught in
fishing nets, was the only remains of the vessel discovered for
many years. The message read:
everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. During
the night the small boat washed overboard. Leaking bad. Invald
and Steve lost too. God help us.
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 from Milwaukee. Bellrichard was searching for the
Vernon, a 177-foot, 700-ton steamer that had sunk in a storm in
October 1887, and had been told about an area in which local
fishermen had frequently snagged their nets. When his sonar
appeared to have located something he dived down to a shipwreck
on the bed of the lake 172 feet below. Despite his light
failing, Bellrichard managed to survey the wreckage with his
hands and concluded that he had instead found the Simmons.
A forensic study of the wreck suggested that the ship had
steerage and was sailing for shelter when it sank. The mizzen
mast snapped off above the deck and the upper portion was not
located. The main mast was found forward and to the port side of
the wreck with the base missing. The foremast is intact and lies
nearly parallel but on top of the main mast suggesting at least
one of these masts fell out of the mast step as the ship went
Many of the trees are still in the ship's hold, though two were
extracted and shown as exhibits. Several items recovered from
the Rouse Simmons are now housed in Rogers Street Fishing
Village Museum in Two Rivers, including the ship's wheel. The
ship's anchor was retrieved and now stands at the entrance to
the Milwaukee Yacht Club. The remains of the wreck are listed on
the National Register of Historic Places.