With New Website, Explore Wisconsin Shipwrecks While Staying Dry

On Nov. 23, 1912, the Rouse Simmons, known as the “Christmas Tree Ship,” sank to 165 feet in Lake Michigan off Two Rivers in Manitowoc County, taking with it 16 lives and thousands of Christmas trees harvested from north woods and bound for holiday homes in Chicago.

Although just over 100 years have passed since that famous ship went down, it—and other shipwrecks—is still very much on the minds of the recreational divers who explore Wisconsin’s Great Lakes wrecks. It’s also on the minds of those who want to explore wrecks and related attractions from dry land through a maritime trails system. Now, these landlubbers have the option to explore as easily as logging on to a website—wisconsinshipwrecks.org.

“Wisconsin has a rich maritime heritage and an equally rich legacy of preserving that heritage,” said Caitlin Zant, a maritime archeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS). “This website is a wonderful tool to broaden and deepen the public’s understanding of what lies beneath our waters. It also will be helpful to recreational divers.”

There are 55 Wisconsin shipwrecks listed on the National Register of Historic Places, far more than any other state.

“People will say to me, ‘Why were ship captains in Wisconsin so much more unfortunate in scuttling their boats than in other states?’ I quickly explain that it’s not that they were worse captains, but rather, we have a strong and longtime commitment to exploring, mapping and sharing information about Wisconsin’s wrecks. There are just so many here that we register and celebrate. Also, the wrecks represent hundreds of years navigation, including years when weather forecasting was not advanced so fierce Great Lakes storms could take a toll on vessels and steal sailors’ lives,” said Tamara Thomsen, Zant’s colleague.

Wisconsin Sea Grant and the WHS have collaborated on numerous shipwreck projects since the 1990s. They have surveyed the Adriatic and Australasia in Lake Michigan; extended public understanding of the nautical past by working together on land-based signage that explains the shipwrecks’ significance; and created geocaches, which are an innovative, accessible and active way to extend the learning. Currently, Sea Grant is funding the exploration of the brownstone quarry trade in the waters of Lake Superior.

The fruits of that collaboration can be found at the site that offers details on 760 Lakes Superior and Michigan shipwrecks. Information on the ships’ construction, service history, final voyage and location are searchable, as are any relevant videos and photos.

Other shipwrecks that may be in the area are also spelled out.  Nearby attractions such as historic waterfronts, lighthouses, museums, historic vessels, charter services, theaters, waterfront parks or archeological sites are also linked with each ship’s story. These attractions are searchable by location and category as well.

The “learn” section of the site provides visitors with information about underwater archeology, the value of studying shipwrecks and how the studies are undertaken, field reports, a calendar of shipwreck-related events, a glossary of ship terms and a list of archival newspaper stories about the waters and their wrecks.

Each boating season, the WHS deploys 30 mooring buoys at wrecks that allow people to tie up directly above the site while protecting the shipwreck from inadvertent anchor damage and providing a safe point of ascent and descent for divers. Find buoy information at the site.

Wisconsinshipwrecks.org explains the location of more than 30 maritime trail historical markers, including the Rouse Simmons. That marker tells the tale of Captain Herman Schuenemann who for 20 years sold Christmas trees directly from the decks of various ships he sailed from small towns along Lake Michigan to holiday-makers in Chicago or Milwaukee. On Nov. 22, 1912, his three-masted schooner left port in Michigan. On its second day, it sailed into the teeth of a northwest gale and hoisted a distress flag. As rescuers raced around a point near Two Rivers to lend assistance, the ship had already vanished. For years afterward, Christmas trees washed ashore, To this day, many other trees are still in the ship’s hold, denied to would-be festive homes in the big city and lying as a testament to those who lost their lives while trying to bring seasonal cheer.