Littered on the bottom of the Great Lakes are the remains of more than 6,000 shipwrecks gone missing on the Great Lakes since the late 1600s when the first commercial sailing ships began plying the region, most during the heyday of commercial shipping in the nineteenth century. Unpredictable weather makes them some of the most dangerous waters in the world. I wanted to learn more as I attended a presentation on two of the most famous shipwrecks on the Lakes.
I first became aware of the Rouse Simmons last February when I arrived in Munising and read the book “The Christmas Tree Ship.” The Rouse Simmons is an enduring story that has inspired poems, songs and paintings for over a century.
The Simmons was a 132 feet long schooner that sailed under different owners from different home ports through the years, but her specialty was always lumber. Captain Schuenemann was a member of a sailing family and a veteran of the lakes. He had an end-of-season specialty significantly more profitable than cut lumber. Weeks after other skippers had called it a year, he carried Christmas trees from the Upper Peninsula to market in Chicago.
With boughs in her rigging and trees lining her rails, the “Christmas Tree Ship” was a picturesque symbol of Christmas for thousands of Chicagoans. These were U.P. open-grown forest trees, not the pruned and pampered products of today’s tree farms. Although they were scrawny by modern standards, the choicest living-room specimens sold for one dollar and the ceiling-scrapers ended up in Chicago churches or hospitals. Those families that couldn’t afford the $1 would be given a free tree by the Christmas loving captain.
Although the tradition was romantic, maintaining it was hazardous. The Great Lakes are notoriously rough late in the year. On Nov. 22, 1912, the Rouse Simmons left Thompson, Michigan carrying 550 trees bound for Chicago. The winds began to wail. At mid-afternoon on Nov. 23, a lifeboat was dispatched from Two Rivers. In the days following rain, snow, sleet and fog hampered rescue efforts. Despite valiant search attempts, the Simmons could not be found.
The news was received with genuine sadness in Chicago. “The Christmas season didn’t really arrive,” wrote one of Capt. Schuenemann’s contemporaries, “until the Christmas Tree Ship tied up at Clark Street.” The 1912 holiday was muted for hundreds of Chicagoans and somber indeed for the families of those who had lost their lives.
The Captain’s wife, Barbara Schuenemann and their eldest daughter, Elsie, with pain still fresh, expressed determination to bring Christmas to Chicago out of loyalty, and began weaving Christmas wreaths and making plans to dock a borrowed ship in the Chicago harbor to sell salvaged trees picked up along the beaches of Lake Michigan.
It was her cargo that set the Rouse Simmons apart. She carried Christmas trees for only three years, but that was enough. In a dark and dangerous season, the Simmons was bringing light and life to a people in need of both. The message still continues a century later, in the season when we welcome, as we may, a child of light and life. http://christmasship.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=frontpage&Itemid=1
Capt. Schuenemann became a legend on the lakes. His Christmas Tree Ship had been talked about, argued about, and sung about for so many years that only one casualty of the gales of November was more famous: the Edmund Fitzgerald. The other shipwreck discussed today.
It’s been called the “Titanic of the Great Lakes” and ranks among the most famous shipwrecks in American history. Nearly 40 years after the “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald,” the legend lives on and many Americans of a certain age remember the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior.
This is very personal for the families in the communities bordering Lake Superior. The 40th anniversary of the Edmund Fitzgerald’s sinking is Tuesday and the passage of time hasn’t lessened the famous shipwreck’s legacy. I have two co-workers at the rehab touched by the tragedy. And today there was a dozen family members and past crew members of the Fitzgerald present at the 40th anniversary memorial presentation.
Even for those too young to remember the 1975 Michigan maritime disaster, Gordon Lightfoot’s haunting ballad immortalized the Nov. 10 tragedy when “the gales of November” came early and the massive freighter sank in Lake Superior with all 29 crewmen aboard.
The sudden disappearance of the 729-foot ore carrier still confounds experts four decades later. The Fitzgerald was held in awe everywhere she went. She was a tourist attraction, especially when she sailed through the Soo Locks. Yet, despite a flood of official reports, underwater investigations and theories it’s still a mystery though I heard a few ideas from crew members today. It’s widely accepted that the ship was damaged when waves caused it to bottom out on a shoal.
There will be a 40th anniversary ceremony at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point, located 17 miles from where the ship rests in its watery grave 535 feet below Lake Superior’s surface. The Fitzgerald’s restored bronze bell, retrieved from the shipwreck in 1995, will toll 29 times for the missing crewmen plus a 30th time to honor all the estimated 30,000 mariners lost on the Great Lakes.
And as Gordon Lightfoot wrote, “the legend lives on, from the Chippewa on down.”