Monday, December 17, 2007

Chicago's Christmas Tree Ship

Yes, there is even a holiday-themed Great Lakes shipwreck story. Unfortunately, it doesn't have the happiest of endings.

On November 21, 1912, the weatherbeaten three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons prepared to leave Manistique, in northern Michigan, bound for Chicago. Aboard were nine men commanded by Herman Schuenemann. Their cargo? A load of Christmas trees, of course.

It was a routine run for the old schooner, which had been hauling the trees to the city for the past few years. As the boat neared port, eager families, many of them from Chicago's lower classes, would gather at the dock in order to have the pleasure of buying their trees right then and there, fresh from the northern forests. Before long, the deliveries by the Christmas Tree Ship, as the Simmons was more commonly known, became something of a Chicago tradition.

But the Simmons, built way back in 1868, was not a young vessel, and the trade in Christmas trees was not easy on her. Her owners literally stuffed her hold and piled trees high on her deck before she made the Lake Michigan crossing. The run, for obvious reasons, had to be completed in November, when the weather on Lake Michigan can be downright frightening.

What exactly happened after the Simmons left Manistique is unclear. But she was spotted the following day rolling heavily in a terrible early winter storm off Kewanee, Wisconsin, her sails shredded and her deck covered with ice. But with the lake in such a frenzy, there was no hope of rescuing her besieged crew.

Meanwhile, on the docks at Chicago her customers waited. When she failed to materialize, they hoped she had just been waylaid by the storm. Unfortunately, she would never again bring her load of Christmas trees to the Windy City. And everyone's worst fears were confirmed when, a few days later, some shattered wreckage from the Simmons washed ashore in Michigan.

The wreck itself was not found until the 1970s when divers stumbled across the Simmons, resting upright and quite peacefully on the bottom of Lake Michigan, very much by accident. Her hold, of course, was still full of its festive cargo. You can see pictures here.

To read Great Lakes author James Donahue's account of the Simmons' last voyage, click here.

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