The Christmas Tree Ship | Photograph | Wisconsin Historical Society


The Christmas Tree Ship

The Christmas Tree Ship | Photograph | Wisconsin Historical Society
Underwater view of the bow of the <i>Rouse Simmons</i> with a Christmas tree placed on it. Local divers, every year (typically on the date the <i>Rouse Simmons</i> sank) place an evergreen tree on the bow of the ship.
Underwater view of the bow of the Rouse Simmons with a Christmas tree placed on it. Local divers, every year (typically on the date the Rouse Simmons sank) place an evergreen tree on the bow of the ship.
Image ID:120451
Creation Date: 05 01 2014
Creator Name:Thomsen, Tamara
Collection Name:Maritime Preservation and Archeology Program Collection
Original Format Type:digital file
Original Format Number:1509000052
Original Dimensions:2000 X 3008 pixels
Each November, the captains Schuenemann loaded the schooner the Rouse Simmons with evergreens in Michigan, than sailed for Chicago where the pair moored their vessel to a downtown pier, hoisted a decorated tree up the mast and strung electric lights throughout the rigging, turning the ship into a large Christmas ornament. Despite the dangers of sailing in November, the captain set out as every year before in 1912 on what would be the ships last voyage. Last seen by the Kewaunee Life-Saving Station, the Rouse Simmons was flying a distress flag five miles offshore while being driven southward by a northwest gale. With no chance of catching the fleeing vessel, the Kewaunee station’s captain telephoned the Two Rivers’ Life-Saving Station, 25 miles to the south. The station immediately launched a lifeboat to intercept the distressed vessel and bring her crew to safety. When the lifeboat motored onto the lake, however, the Rouse Simmons had vanished, taking its cargo, captain and estimated sixteen crew and passengers with it. The location of the Rouse Simmons wreck remained a mystery for 59 years. Christmas trees washed up along the coastline for years to follow; and, in 1923, Captain Schuenemann’s wallet came up in a fisherman’s net near Two Rivers, Wis. The site of the wreck was not discovered until 1971, twelve miles northeast of Two Rivers in 165 feet of water. By examining the historical and archaeological record, divers from the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) pieced together a more complete story of that fateful day in 1912. Despite the popular stories that materialized around the Simmons’ loss, the vessel was lost under clear conditions, not, as legend has it, last seen by the life-saving crew encrusted with ice, through a fleeting window in a vicious snowstorm. By recreating the search pattern of the Two Rivers lifeboat and comparing it with the Rouse Simmons' location today, the WHS deduced that the Two Rivers lifeboat completely encircled the Rouse Simmons and was never more than a few miles from where she is laying. With a reported six miles of visibility that day, if the ship were still afloat as the lifeboat rounded Two Rivers Point at 4:20 p.m., the life-saving crew would have seen her. Additionally, the snowstorm that many lake captains reported as “the worst they had ever seen,” may well have been terrible, but it began around 5 p.m., well after the Rouse Simmons would have been on the bottom. Furthermore, the ship faces towards the northwest, not the south as reported. Likely before the Two Rivers lifeboat rounded Two Rivers Point, something had gone seriously wrong aboard the vessel, and her crew had deployed the port anchor to hold the Rouse Simmons into the wind. Soon after making this decision, however, large waves sent the Rouse Simmons and her crew to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Many mysteries and legends remain about the old schooner, often affectionately referred to as the Christmas Tree Ship. Forty-four years old when it was lost, the Rouse Simmons stood as a relic of a bygone era when sailing ships dotted the Great Lakes. By 1912, new steam technology had made the sailing vessel obsolete for any purpose other than the lumber trade, as lumber, particularly Christmas trees, would not be damaged by water from leaky, old ships. The mysteries of its loss, the nostalgia for the old sailing ships, and its cargo of Christmas trees all contributed to the sentimentality and myths that surround the Rouse Simmons to this day. To learn more visit the Wisconsin Shipwrecks website.
Lumber trade
Underwater photography
Underwater exploration
Cargo ships
Great Lakes
Marine accidents
Michigan, Lake

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