The Christmas Tree Ship sank into the depths of Lake Michigan near the shore of Two Rivers, WI during a devastating winter storm on November 23, 1912.
Once a beloved symbol of the holiday season hauling a load of fresh-cut pine trees bound for Chicago on the rough late season waters, the Rouse Simmons became a watery grave 165 feet beneath the waves. But that hasn’t stopped her ghostly crew from trying to complete their voyage and deliver their final load on Christmas morning.
Quick facts about the Christmas Tree Ship
- The Rouse Simmons was a three-masted Great Lakes schooner built in Milwaukee in 1868
- The ship delivered Christmas trees from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Chicago
- Captain Herman Schuenemann was known as “Captain Santa“
- The ship sank during a winter storm on November 23, 1912
- The crew and passengers, an estimated 16-23 men, were all lost
- The shipwreck was discovered off the coast of Two Rivers, WI in 1971
- A phantom bell has been heard tolling for those lost
- The ghost ship sails on Christmas Eve
- The grave of Captain Schuenemann‘s wife Barbara smells of pine
Christmas Ghost Ship
It was a unique Christmas tradition to be sure: Residents of Two Rivers gathering on Point Beach late on Christmas eve or early Christmas morning before dusk hoping to catch a glimpse of an old wooden schooner sailing out on the frigid black waters of Lake Michigan. There they would see the silhouette of the ship rolling gently in the waves and the warm glow of a lantern emanating through the fog as a dark figure carried it about. Piles of pine trees were lashed to the deck. Tattered sails hung from the ship’s three tall masts.
The ship would loom in the distance for some time, then fade off into the inky veil of night and vanish until next Christmas.
The ship was the Rouse Simmons. and her remains were lying on the lake bottom under 165 feet of water. She succumbed to a legendary winter squall many years earlier, dragging her entire crew and a load of freshly cut Christmas trees to the bottom of the lake.
Christmas, for all its magic and cheer, has long been considered a dark and foreboding time of year perfectly suited for telling ghost stories. It’s quite fitting that along the shores of Lake Michigan, those ghosts are the tall ships of the lake’s past, and the apparition at the helm of one of the most famous ghost ships, the spectral Christmas Tree Ship, is the ghost of a man called Captain Santa.
The Year Without Christmas
The Rouse Simmons was a 123-foot, three-masted schooner launched from the Milwaukee shipyards in 1868. She spent her career hauling lumber on Lake Michigan to burgeoning cities such as Milwaukee and Chicago where there was high demand for construction materials. Every November, however, she would make her final run of the season headed south to the waterfront markets of Chicago with her deck and holds loaded with Northern Michigan evergreens for the holiday season.
The Rouse Simmons was one of some two dozen ships that delivered Christmas trees to ports along the shores of the Great Lakes around the turn of the century, but she was probably the most well known due to the reputation of her captain.
Christmas trees weren’t the most lucrative business, but Captain Herman Schuenemann, along with his wife Barbara and their three daughters, enjoyed it.
Herman and crew would sail up to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, then return to Chicago with a load of fresh cut Christmas trees. They docked along the Chicago River, strung electric lights up from bow to stern and invited customers right onto the deck of the ship to pick their trees. Barbara and the kids made wreaths, garland, and other decorations to sell, as well.
Schuenemann loved his work, and he had a reputation of generosity for giving trees to the city’s more needy residents. His good deeds earned him the nickname Captain Santa, which he accepted joyfully.
But in 1912, Captain Santa and his beloved Christmas Tree Ship never arrived, and that year became known as the year without Christmas.
Sailor Superstitions and Bad Omens
Sailors are known to be a superstitious bunch, and given the inherent dangers in their work, it’s no wonder why. When forces you can’t control, such as weather, are imminent threats to your life at all times, it’s only natural to invent ways in which we imagine we have some level of control.
For the crew of the Rouse Simmons there were several troubling omens throughout their final ill-fated voyage that had them on edge.
As the ship sat in the Chicago harbor preparing for the trip to the North Woods where they picked up their load of trees, the crew was distressed to see rats fleeing the ship. Since rats could navigate small crevices and tight spaces, they were the first to know if the ship had a leak. Rats leaving the ship is always a bad sign for mariners.
The sailor’s constitutions were shaken even more when they realized the ship’s complement amounted to a total of 13 people. Unlucky 13.
Captain Charles Nelson, co-owner and co-captain of the Rouse Simmons, almost didn’t board the ship. He had doubts about the old vessel’s sea-worthiness, and his daughter Alvida cried and begged him not to go.
Some believe the girl may have had a premonition of what was to come and tried to spare her father of his ghastly fate.
Nelson had a commitment to honor on the creaking old ship, but he assured Alvida that this would be his final tree run aboard the Rouse Simmons. Schuenemann made the same promise to his family, and though not the way they intended, both men kept their word.
At least…in life.
The journey north was uneventful, but when the Rouse Simmons docked in Thompson, Michigan, more rats evacuated.
Schuenemann knew the dangers of sailing this time of year. He had been making this run for nearly three decades, not to mention that his own brother, August, had lost his life making a Christmas run back in 1898 when a winter storm took the S. Thal to her icy grave.
Most captains refused to sail at all during this time. But for many Chicago families, the yuletide season didn’t officially begin until the Rouse Simmons arrived with her load of trees, and Schuenemann always saw to it that Christmas came to those in need.
Before they departed the Michigan port The air was still and the waters calm. Dark clouds gathered in the distance and the tension of an imminent storm was in the air. When loading was complete, the schooner seemed dangerously overloaded for whatever was coming on the horizon. Witnesses said the ship had looked like a floating forest. 3,000-5,00 trees were piled eight feet high on the deck and filled the hold beneath. A pine-scented threat to the ship’s stability.
Several members of the crew refused to get back on the ship. They took trains back home instead.
Schuenemann offered some of the lumbermen a ride back to Chicago to spend the holidays with their families, so the exact number on board was never known for sure. It was estimated later to be somewhere between 16 and 23 men.
It was November 22, 1912 when the Rouse Simmons set sail from Michigan. That was a Friday that year, and sailors never sailed on a Friday. It was an extremely unlucky day, historically speaking. Seafarers preferred to leave the next day, if possible, or at least delay departure until one minute past midnight. But there were Christmas trees to deliver and a storm on the way – no time to delay. They couldn’t risk the ship getting frozen in the harbor or smashed against the rocks by the heavy winds.
Still there was one more ominous sign damning their voyage – the horseshoe.
Horseshoes were typically viewed as good luck charms, and would be hung in homes for good fortune. In nautical folklore, a horseshoe was a protective talisman that could ward off storms. A horseshoe would be nailed to a ship’s mast or cabin wall near the wheel with the ends pointed up in a U shape, like a bucket to gather luck. When the wreck of the Rouse Simmons was discovered in 1971, the diver who found her noted that a nail was missing from her horseshoe and caused it to turn downward, as if luck had run out.
The Greatest Storm of the Decade
Many long time lake captains said the “Big Storm of 1912” was the worst storm they had ever seen. It was later called the “greatest storm of the decade.” 60-80 mile per hour gale force winds. Rain turning to swirling vortexes of snow and ice. Mountainous waves.
The old schooner was in no shape for that.
By the time she passed the Life Saving Station in Kewaunee, Wisconsin on the afternoon of Saturday, November 23, her flag was flying at half-mast – a distress signal. A life-saving crew was dispatched from Kewaunee, but they lost sight of the ship.
Kewaunee called the next station south in Two Rivers, who immediately sent out a boat. The storm had darkened the sky, the snow was thick, and a heavy mist obscured their view. They circled the area but never found the ship.
No one was sure what had become of the ship yet. She could have pulled into a safe harbor to wait out the storm. But days later when the Rouse Simmons failed to arrive in Chicago, her fate became clear. The storm had taken many other vessels to the bottom of the lake, and it seemed the Christmas tree ship was among them.
When Captain Santa failed to pull into port, the newspapers called it “the year without Christmas.”
Christmas Trees Wash Ashore
Christmas trees soon began washing ashore along the Wisconsin coastline in Sheboygan and other areas, making clear the ship’s fate. The trees were still green at first, and townspeople put them up in their homes. Captain Santa was still doing his job, they said.
But when the trees started coming to shore brown, they used the wood to make Christmas ornaments, instead.
A message washed up in Sheboygan that had been written by Captain Nelson. It had been stuffed inside a bottle and corked with a piece of pine.
“Friday…everyone goodbye,” the note said. “I guess we are all through.”
The note said the ship was “leaking bad” and the small boat (lifeboat) had been washed overboard. Two members of the crew had also been carried overboard by the wind and waves.
“God help us,” Nelson wrote.
In 1924, a fishing boat pulled Captain Schuenemann’s waterproof oilskin wallet from the lake. The wallet was returned to his widow.
The name of the boat that found it was The Reindeer.
The exact fate of the Christmas tree ship remained a mystery for 59 years until the wreck was discovered by diver Kent Bellrichard in 1971 six miles northeast of Rawley Point near Two Rivers. She sank so quickly that when she hit bottom, the bow dug a ten-foot-deep gash in the lake bed. The masts had broken off, the pilot house was gone, and the deck was badly damaged.
There were still Christmas inside the hold, and some of them toward the bottom even still have their needles.
Phantoms and Legends
13 days after the Christmas Tree Ship sank beneath the waves, another Great Lakes mariner reported hearing the ghostly tolling of her bell. Sailors have told stories of encounters with the phantom ship on the water, where she appears seemingly out of nowhere, and then vanishes just as quickly.
Schuenemann’s wife Barbara and their three daughters Elsie, Hazel, and Pearl, carried on the family Christmas tree business after Herman’s death. They still delivered trees by boat at first, then by rail, until about 1934.
Barbara died in 1933 and was buried in Acacia Park Cemetery in Illinois. Her gravestone also bears her husband’s name, though his final resting place is with the Rouse Simmons at the bottom of Lake Michigan. Visitors to the gravesite have reported the scent of pine in the air.
Where to Visit the Christmas Tree Ship
If you want to catch a glimpse of the Rouse Simmons, you could dive to the shipwreck and see her remains up close and personal. Or you could head to Rawley Point on Christmas morning and hope to catch a glimpse of the ghost ship still hauling her final load of trees for the yule season.
If you’re looking to visit something a little easier to reach and maybe a bit more tangible, there are two places worth a stop if you’re in the area. The first is in Algoma, Wisconsin – Captain Santa’s hometown. Christmas Tree Ship Point, a place the Lake Michigan Christmas Tree ships passed every holiday season, offers several informational plaques of nearby sunken schooners and a beautiful view of the Algoma Pierhead Lighthouse.
The other location is a historical marker in Thompson, Michigan memorializing the area’s once booming lumber industry, as well as it’s significance as the Rouse Simmons’ final port of call.
The Christmas Ship tradition was revived in 1999 and lives on today with the US Coast Guard vessel Mackinaw. She is the largest Coast Guard ship on the Great Lakes, and every year in early December she brings a load of about 1,200 trees from Northern Michigan to Navy Pier for families in need.