The Legend of the Christmas Tree Ship

Happy holidays from the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation! As we find ourselves in the midst of the holiday season, we’re highlighting a favorite holiday-related shipwreck with a fascinating, over one-hundred year history: the Christmas Tree Ship. Found in the waters off the coast of the currently proposed Wisconsin — Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary, the schooner’s official name was the Rouse Simmons but is popularly known as the Christmas Tree Ship.

It was November 22nd, 1912 when the Simmons was loaded up with thousands of Christmas trees, shipping out from a port in Thompson, Michigan and heading for Chicago. The Captain, Herman E. Schuenemann, was an experienced sailor and the trip was one the schooner had made several times before. The Simmons had specifically been shipping Christmas trees for decades prior to its final voyage, but the ship’s old age of 44 years combined with the cold winter and the heavy abundance of trees on board all contributed to the fateful sinking. In fact, it was a notably hard winter for sailors that year, with three other ships having sunk before the Simmons set out on the voyage.

When the ship first sank, no one was sure why or where it might have ended up. Records from other vessels in the area noted the Simmons had a flag flying at half mast, a universal distress signal on the water; but by the time the Captain of the other ship had assembled a crew for rescue, the ship was out of sight due to the heavy snowstorm ravaging the area.

Searches took place for years following the ship’s disappearance, but the discovery of the ship didn’t come until 1971, almost 60 years later. A diver named Gordon Bellrichard was exploring the area at the time and happened upon the ship, 170 feet below the surface of what is now the proposed site of the Wisconsin — Lake Michigan marine sanctuary. Originally looking for a different vessel using SONAR, Bellrichard happened upon the vessel sitting upright at the bottom of Lake Michigan. This ended decades of mystery for a community of maritime historians, researchers, and intrigued audiences of the Christmas Tree ship saga.

Today, the Christmas Tree ship serves as a symbol of historical value and exploratory intrigue. It resides amongst other famous shipwrecks that attract thousands of visitors every year, and continues to be one of the most famous and frequented shipwrecks in the area by scuba divers, history buffs, Wisconsin locals, and eager tourists. A concurrent annual event called the ‘Christmas Tree Program’ held by volunteers at Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary gives the students the opportunity to hear the fascinating story and participate in fun activities that help them honor the memory of the ship and Captain during the holiday season.