The information provided below is a partial excerpt from the book THE HISTORIC CHRISTMAS TREE SHIP: A True Story of Faith, Hope and Love by Rochelle Pennington.
The 325-page book details the extraordinary story of the Christmas Tree
Ship from every angle and includes over 60 photographs along with
hundreds of newspaper citations spanning a period of 140 years.
A Sunken Treasure
“The ghost of Christmas past rests beneath the cold, murky waters of Lake Michigan… The ghost is the hull of the Rouse Simmons.The Christmas past was 1912.”
November 23, 1989
“Diving a shipwreck is kind of like exploring a haunted house underwater.”
Michael Haynes, Great Lakes Diver
Sunken ships. Sunken treasures. Forgotten men in forgotten places.
At the bottom of the Great Lakes,
in darkened depths, lie the remains of countless ships that were
swallowed whole when the pleasing rhythm of calm waters turned violent.
The Rouse Simmons is only one ship of many that became
a coffin for the men aboard it when they found themselves on the losing
end of a deadly wrestling match with the waters.
The Simmons’ decaying remains lie just north of Two Rivers, Wisconsin on the floor of Lake Michigan. This stretch of shoreline is nicknamed “The Graveyard of the Lake”
because of the large number of wrecks claimed in the immediate
vicinity. (The shipwreck site is also located just south of the DoorCountyPeninsula, another stretch of waters known for danger and disaster. The passageway between the northernmost tip of the peninsula and Washington Island, located several miles off shore, is nicknamed “Porte des Mortes” – French for “Death’s Door”.)
Fifty-nine years after the Rouse Simmons and her crew were buried in their unmarked graves, a diver from Milwaukee, Kent Bellrichard, happened upon the site on October 30, 1971, while diving alone.
Bellrichard’s testimony of the fateful find was included on a WTMJ television program, The Christmas Tree Ship,
recorded in 1975. “The conditions that day were very bad,” said
Bellrichard. “The skies were heavily overcast with light mist and fog,
so I could only see maybe a half a mile, and at times, a mile. After
crisscrossing the lake, and going north and south, and east and west,
you kind of lose track of where you are, so I really didn’t know where
I was when I got the target on the Christmas Tree Ship. I knew I had a
good target, and obviously from our experience with the electronic
equipment I can tell if it’s a bad bottom, a rocky bottom, or a
shipwreck. And I was quite sure this was a shipwreck. But just what shipwreck, you’re not really sure until you go down and look at it.”
“It was a tremendous thrill the very first time I went down,” said Bellrichard, “because I was 99% sure it was the Rouse Simmons.
In fact, I came back up and got in the boat, and there wasn’t anybody
within six miles. It was quite rough on the lake, and there weren’t any
sport fishermen out, for sure. There wasn’t anybody around, yet I was
hollering to myself in joy that I had finally found this ship.”
The sonar equipment on
Bellrichard’s borrowed boat indicated a shipwreck was immediately below
his craft. (Metal makes a certain sound on the sonar, as does wood.
Also, a sand bottom can be identified from a rocky bottom by the
particular sound each makes.)
“To an untrained ear, the
sonar readings Bellrichard heard that day would have meant nothing,”
said James Brotz, a long-time diving partner of Bellrichard’s. “But
this was no untrained ear.”
By the time Bellrichard, a Coast Guard trained sonar expert, had located the Simmons shipwreck, he had also earned himself a nickname - “The Jacques Cousteau of the Great Lakes.”
In an interview I conducted with him while working on this book, he
told me he had been diving since the late 1950’s and was happiest when
he was “on the water,” “in the water,” and “by the water.”
“Lake Michigan has always been a part of my life,” said Bellrichard. “And all the Great Lakes really…”
…After locating the wreck
in 1971, Kent Bellrichard was interviewed by Theodore Charrney.
Bellrichard told him, “Nothing has ever been so exciting, and at the
same time rewarding, in all my years of diving, or in all my years of
doing anything for that matter.”
One of the first things
Bellrichard saw when he returned to the shipwreck site one week later
were “hundreds of Christmas trees” – spruce and pine - in the hold.
According to John Steele, a diver who joined Kent Bellrichard on this second dive to the Simmons site,
many of the trees were “bald” and mere skeletons. However, Steele noted
that when they dug deeper into the pile trees they found trees that
“still had needles on which is rather surprising.”
The Christmas trees aboard the Simmons had been destined for prominent locations throughout Chicago: City Hall, Illinois Bell Telephone Company, Boston Store, Marshall Fields & Company, the CentralMusic Hall, and also the Bush Temple of Music, to name just a few. Many theaters and churches in Chicago erected Schuenemann trees each Christmas, as did countless families.
According to Andy LaFond, a fisherman whose family has been involved in the commercial fishing industry on Lake Michigan
for over 150 years, stepladders were used by families in 1912 in place
of Christmas trees when Captain Schuenemann’s ship went missing. These
opened stepladders provided a similar triangular shape to a Christmas
tree, and were nearly the same height. According to the memories Mr.
LaFond shared with me, these “Christmas stepladders” were nicknamed
“Jacob Ladders” after the Biblical text in Genesis of a ladder that
reached into heaven…
…Oscar A. Anderson, a
member of the Two Rivers Life Saving Crew in 1912, recalled the deadly
storm of November 23rd and shared memories before he died of the rescue
efforts he and other crew members made in their search for the Simmons:
“It was snowing so thick most of the time,” said Anderson, “we could
hardly see the length of our 34-foot power life boat. In fact we
worried that we might get run down by the Simmons as
she was moving before the wind, but nary a trace of her… We turned
around about halfway between Two Rivers Point light and Kewaunee and
returned real close along the shore. In fact, a little too close to
suit me as we got into some bad breakers. There were six of us in our
life boat. Had an eight man crew; one was on day off, and one was left
at the station in the lookout. In my ten years in the service, 1903 to
1913, this was my most thrilling experience…”
…Captain Schuenemann’s wife, Barbara, received correspondence from her husband written just prior to his departure from Thompson, Michigan,
according to information supplied by Theodore Charrney to the Chicago
Maritime Society. “When Barbara came to her front window on Sunday
morning, November 24, she did not like what she saw,” wrote Charrney.
“Over the trees of Lincoln Park she could see the mass of foam that was Lake Michigan.
Huge waves were hitting the shoreline, sending clouds of spray almost a
hundred feet into the air. The waves swept over the driveways along the
lakefront, and far into the park, carrying with them rubbish and logs
brought in from the water. Some of the rollers intruded all the way to
monument, a city block and a half from the shoreline. All day long
people came from different areas of the city to see the spectacle
produced by angry nature. Thousands of sightseers crowded into the park
and at vantage points along the lakefront to watch the waves and see
them atomize into great sheets of spray. Barbara had received a post
card from Herman, late in the week, and knew that the Christmas trees
were already Chicago
bound. Surely, Herman would not be out on the lake on such a day. He
would have the good sense to seek shelter and let the storm pass before
proceeding home. Perhaps he would be a day late, maybe two, but he was
surely safe in some Wisconsin harbor, impatiently waiting out the storm. How could she know that Captain Herman and Captain Nelson, and the Rouse Simmons with all the men and Christmas trees, were already at the bottom of the lake.”
In addition to Christmas trees, the Simmons’ cargo also consisted of thousands and thousands of evergreen branches that were to be used for wreathmaking.
In December of 1898 the Chicago Daily News ran the following article about Captain Schuenemann’s ship, the Mary Collins, when it made port in Chicago:“The schooner Mary Collins,
Captain Schuenemann, with 10,000 Christmas trees and ten tons of
lycopodium, the pretty fine-feathered green stuff of which Christmas
wreaths are made…is moored at the ClarkStreetBridge.
On her deck an interesting sight is witnessed. Nearly a score of girls
and women are turning this green stuff into Christmas wreaths and
decorations. The captain has built over the deck of the schooner a snug
board shelter, through the middle of which runs a long table. Along
both sides of this sit the wreathmakers, and deftly they handle the
sprigs of green. The girls on the one side – on the starboard, to be
nautical – make the endless strings of green for decorations, weaving
the lycopodium sprigs together with fine, soft wire… The season of work
in Christmas greens lasts about four weeks, and in that time the
lycopodium on the Mary Collins will be turned into a matter of 60,000 yards of wreaths.”
The Chicago Daily News
published an article on November 28, 1899, detailing a typical
Schuenemann cargo: “Balsam and fir fresh from the Michigan woods,
Norway pine, white pine, lycopodium, hemlock, spruce, fir, cat spruce,
red cedar, juniper, arbor vitae and all the other evergreens that grow
on the north shore of Lake Michigan are represented today in the cargo
of the Mary Collins at Clark Street Bridge… Its coming
every fall betokens the approach of the holiday season, for every year
Captain Herman Schuenemann, after unloading his last cargo of lumber,
takes his craft to Manistique and fills the hold and deckhouse with
Christmas trees and greens.”
A decade later the Chicago Inter Ocean of December 7, 1909, reported “half a hundred girls and women” were still weaving wreaths on Captain Schuenemann’s Christmas ship, the Bertha Barnes. (Many different ships were used by the Schuenemanns through the years.)
(Note: The 1900 U.S. Government Census – and the 1910 Census – both recorded Captain Schuenemann’s occupation as “Sea Captain”.)
The article also made mention of another vessel Captain Schuenemann used prior to the Bertha Barnes. This ship was called the George Wrenn. The article read:“SCENES ABOARD THE BERTHA BARNES,
THE CHRISTMAS TREE BOAT. ‘Christmas trees are going to be high this
year,’ observed Captain Schuenemann as he stood on the bridge of the
schooner Bertha Barnes yesterday and filled the bowl
of his pipe with tobacco that he had been rolling in the palm of his
hand… ‘It is about the slimmest cargo I ever brought away… Why, I’ve
only got about 15,000 trees on the whole ship, and you know, of course,
market depends pretty much on my supply. It’s the bad weather that’s to
blame… Say, I’m wondering if our poor luck in getting trees this year
hasn’t something to do with our changing boats. We’re on the Bertha Barnes
this year. It’s the first time she ever had this honor and she acts as
if she’s mighty proud of it. But I can’t help feeling a mite sorry for
the Wrenn…’ The captain beamed his broadest smile as
half a hundred girls and women came out of the cabin where they had
been twining and weaving wreaths. ‘Hooray for Captain Schuenemann!’
shouted some of the women as they waved their handkerchiefs at the
jolly old skipper who resembles Santa Claus…”
…The cargo capacity of the Rouse Simmons
was estimated at 300-400 tons. Captain Schuenemann would load his
Christmas ships to the maximum, utilizing every free space. Also, the
captain would ship as many as three cargos during a single season.
In 1912 Captain Schuenemann’s load was filled to the bursting point, and when the Simmons shipwreck was discovered there were still “thousands” of trees on board the vessel…
…Some of the “skeleton trees” salvaged from the Simmons are in family attics around Lake Michigan to this very day. Each Christmas, the trees are brought down from storage and given a place of honor.Although
most of these trees are simply trunks with “stubby” little branches,
they are lovingly decorated nonetheless with a single star….
…Visitors to the RogersStreetFishingVillageMuseum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin, can view a Christmas tree on display from the Rouse Simmons, as well as other artifacts from the Simmons including a 15 gallon crock, a wood stool, an enamel kettle, a dead eye, a timber, and the ship’s wheel.
The RogersStreetFishingVillageMuseum also houses one of the vessel’s nameplates. (A second nameplate is on display at the PierWisconsinMuseum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Pier Wisconsin also has a porthole from the Rouse Simmons in their collection…)
…When Kent Bellrichard discovered the Simmons in 1971 the nameplates were “quite visible and still in perfect shape,” said Bellrichard. Each was filmed underwater when the Simmons was originally located to prove the vessel had at last been found since many people believed the wreckage of the Rouse Simmons washed ashore in 1951 at Ludington, Michigan.
The Sheboygan Press of December 22, 1951, reprinted an article previously published in the Ludington newspapers. It read: “LUDINGTON, Michigan
– The hull of an old sailing vessel that washed ashore here a month ago
may be the final note of the 39-year old tragedy of the Great Lakes. A veteran of the lakes, Captain Peter L. Deblake, believes the hull that washed in at LudingtonState Park may be that of the Rouse Simmons. The Simmons, a three-masted schooner was lost with all hands on Lake Michigan near Kewaunee, Wisconsin, 39 years ago…”
…After the wreck from the Rouse Simmons
was discovered in 1971, the ship’s anchor was raised in 1973 and placed
on permanent display at the Milwaukee Yacht Club. Visitors to Milwaukee can also see several artifacts from the Rouse Simmons
displayed at the South Shore Yacht Club including dishes, a
hand-cranked fog horn, and a lightbulb from a string of lights used by
Captain Schuenemann to decorate his ship after he docked in Chicago.
Regarding the lightbulb,
Kent Bellrichard said: “We removed some wreckage on the stern of the
ship to get down into the lower cabins and into the galley. In the
process of removing this wreckage, a lightbulb popped to the surface.
One of the fellows aboard the boat saw it and scooped it up with a fish
net. It was intact, and the filament was still good. About a month
later we applied some gentle electricity to it to bring the voltage up
slowly. Believe it or not, it glowed!” Amazingly, the lightbulb (which
was an “early Edison” bulb) still worked after being submerged on the
bottom of Lake Michigan for over a half century.
Several additional lightbulbs were later discovered by a diver named Allan (Butch) Klopp and placed on display at the Great LakesShipwreckMuseum in St. Ignace, Michigan.
The museum housed Mr. Klopp’s private collection of artifacts from 1986
until the museum was dissembled in 2000. On display at the Great Lakes
Shipwreck Museum were many relics from the Rouse Simmons including axes used to cut down Christmas trees, a calking mallet used to hammer caulk into the crevices of the aging Rouse Simmons,
dinnerware, crockery, silver spoons, eye glasses, sun glasses, kerosene
lanterns, several canning jars, chisels, corked wine bottles, shot
glasses, medicine bottles (including one labeled “Dr. King’s New
Discovery for Coughs and Colds”), several clay pipes, a ceramic
spittoon, a barometer, a tafrail log (used to measure the speed and
distance a ship traveled), and the jawbone from a pet dog on board the
ship when it sunk…
…The community of Port Washington, located north of Milwaukee, houses a museum in their 1860 restored lighthouse.In their collection is a Christmas tree from the Rouse Simmons cargo as well as a belaying pin from the ship.
The WisconsinMaritimeMuseum in Manitowoc, Wisconsin, is in possession of a remnant section of timber from the Rouse Simmons with carved letters on it, a key chain made from one of the Christmas trees from the ship,and a wooden compass box lid.
Additional displays of Rouse Simmons information and artwork can be seen at Dettman’s Shanty in Algoma, Wisconsin, and also at the Ship’s WheelGallery & NauticalMuseum in Kewaunee, Wisconsin.
only human remains discovered at the shipwreck site were found by Kent
Bellrichard. He came upon a single skeleton while removing timbers and
debris from the stern area of the ship.Bellrichard,
along with two other divers, buried the unknown sailor – whom they
referred to as “The Poor Soul” - in the sand near the Rouse Simmons. An underwater memorial vigil preceded the burial.