Monday, December 10, 2012

The Wreck of the Rouse Simmons

Photo: Eric Nils Forsberg
Christmas in Wisconsin is a wonderful time.  Seasonal snowfall drapes the landscape in a beautiful blanket of white, making Wisconsin a picture-perfect setting for Christmas.  With Wisconsin's large German population, the traditional Tannenbaum (Christmas tree) became an icon of Yuletide celebrations (the Christmas tree didn't catch on in the rest of the United States until the late 1800's).  Naturally Wisconsin's plentiful evergreen forests became a primary source for Christmas trees all over the Midwest, and Wisconsin's waterways proved to be the most efficient way to transport them.

Photo: Fine Art America

The Rouse Simmons was a three-masted schooner built in 1868.  Despite being named after a Kenosha businessman, its home port was Milwaukee.  It was purchased by Charles H. Hackley for hauling lumber and moved to Muskegon.  Because of its combination of speed and capacity, it became a workhorse of Hackley's fleet and was soon making weekly trips to Chicago.

In 1910 Herman Schuenemann bought stock in the ship along with other businessmen from Chicago and Michigan.  Schuenemann and his brother August had been selling Wisconsin pines to the Chicago Christmas tree markets since the turn of the 20th century.  August drowned when his ship capsized off the coast of Illinois in a terrible storm but Schuenemann carried on the family business.  He started to sell his trees directly to customers off the deck of the ship, cutting out the middleman and lowering his prices.  His "Christmas Tree Ship" became famous by attracting customers with strings of electric lights and a decorated tree on top of the mainmast.  He soon was being affectionately known as "Captain Santa" and would often give away trees to needy families.

Of course, Wisconsin winters can be harsh and the winter of 1912 was especially rough.  Snow buried many tree farms and made transportation difficult.  But that wasn't going to stop the intrepid Schuenemann, who figured he could make a nice profit with the lack of competition that year.  He loaded the Rouse Simmons with 5,500 trees and headed to Chicago that November (it wouldn't be the last time the gales of November claimed lives off the shore of Wisconsin).

Photo: Wisconsinology
Many of the crew refused to board, citing the high water line due to the ship's over-packed hulls. But they shoved off at noon nonetheless, only to be at risk by nightfall.  Two crew members were sent to the deck to check on the cargo and we thrown overboard by a large wave and 60mph winds.  Trees were being thrown from the ship and Captain Schuenemann decided to seek shelter at Baily's Harbor in Door County.  The ship was spotted off the coast of Kewaunee, sails in tatters and flag at half-mast (signalling distress) but by the time a powerboat could be dispatched, the ship had been claimed by the icy winter water.

In a haunting turn of events, it was not the last time the crew was heard from.  A message in a bottle washed up on the shore near Sheboygan not long after the wreck.
Friday … 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.
 Captain Schueneman's wallet was found by fishermen in 1924, preserved in oilskin.  It wasn't until 1971 that the wreck was located by a scuba diver from Milwaukee.  Various pieces of the wreck have be reclaimed and are on display at the Rogers Street Fishing Village Museum in Two Rivers and the Milwaukee Yacht Club.  The tree business was continued by Schueneman's wife and daughter, but the practice of hauling by schooner was replaced by train and road by the 1920's.

Photo: Superior Trips
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Rouse Simmons.  The ship still lives on in Wisconsin memory, most notably as the musical The Christmas Schooner written by John Reeger.  It premiered at the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre in Chicago in 1996 and has enjoyed modest success in Chicago and Wisconsin.

1 comment:

  1. A really informative post. Thanks for sharing such detailed information regarding it. Hope to see more posts on your blog soon and wish you all the best for them.


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