Beginning in 1890, Captains August and Herman Schuenemann sailed schooners from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula down to Chicago every November, delivering Christmas trees for families in the city. If you asked people in Chicago at the time, they’d tell you Christmas didn’t really start until the Christmas Tree Ship arrived on the Chicago River. After August died in a shipwreck on the S. Thal in 1898, Herman continued the work on his own and served as a Santa Claus of sorts, giving away much of the stock to disadvantaged families.
In 1910, Herman started running a new Christmas Tree Ship to Chicago, an aged schooner named the Rouse Simmons. Little did the sailor know, he would soon meet the same fate his brother saw years earlier.
Captain Herman Schuenemann had pulled the rickety, 42-year-old Rouse Simmons out of the lumber business, and she made her final voyage on November 22, 1912. Sixteen crew and passengers—including a handful of lumberjacks heading to Chicago to spend time with family and friends for the holidays—never made it to the city. History is murky about how the ship went down, but the boat and crew were last seen by the Kewaunee Lifesaving Station, fleeing a November gale and flying a distress flag. Rescue boats were sent out from the Two Rivers station, 25 miles to the south, but the ship was never seen on the water again. For the next several years, Christmas trees regularly washed up on the Lake Michigan shore.
Today, the wreck of the Rouse Simmons sits 165 feet down, at the bottom of Lake Michigan, preserved in chilly freshwater with tree trunks still visible in the hold. Discovered in 1971, it’s part of the newest marine sanctuary in the United States: the Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary. The 962-square-mile Shipwreck Coast sanctuary is the country’s fifteenth and Lake Michigan’s first. The sanctuary has 36 known shipwrecks (21 of them are listed on the National Register of Historic Places) and up to 59 more are suspected. The state of Wisconsin, along with coastal Wisconsin towns Port Washington, Sheboygan, Manitowoc and Two Rivers, submitted a nomination for the sanctuary to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 2014, noting that the shipwrecks in it “retain an unusual degree of architectural integrity,” and it was officially approved and designated this past summer.
“The designation of this sanctuary is a milestone for NOAA, Wisconsin, and the nation,” Nicole LeBoeuf, acting director of NOAA’s National Ocean Service, said in a release at the time. “This new sanctuary opens the door to world-class research, educational opportunities, and tourism for generations to come.”
More than 6,000 vessels have sunk in the Great Lakes throughout history, and many of them are still undiscovered. The oldest found so far, a British warship called the HMS Ontario, is in Lake Ontario and sank in 1780. The most recent is the Linda E., a fishing boat run over by a combination tug and barge ship called the Michigan/Great Lakes in 1998. Lake Erie appears to be the deadliest lake, claiming more than 2,000 shipwrecks; Lake Michigan has about 1,500. To this day, the lakes are dangerous for ships, thanks to volatile weather patterns that change quickly.
The Great Lakes have served as a shipping superhighway since the 1700s, first with ships trading locally across the lakes, but then working as a passageway from the East Coast to the Midwest, following the St. Lawrence River down from Canada. By 1888, the Port of Chicago saw 20,000 ships dock in one season. The lakes are all chained together with waterways, and following the Mississippi River down from Lake Michigan leads to the Gulf of Mexico. Even today, more than 160 million tons of cargo are shipped across the lakes on what’s now called the Great Lakes Seaway. In the early years, the ships carried products and ore, plus thousands of immigrants, allowing Midwest towns to balloon in population and industry. The shipwrecks in the sanctuary are a direct link to this past.
“These sites are a tangible connection to past generations whose tenacity and entrepreneurial spirit helped build the nation,” says Russ Green, the NOAA coordinator for the sanctuary. “This is our national heritage. As I see it, these are important historically and archaeologically. But if we manage them creatively, they can also be impactful from a recreational and educational standpoint, and a community engagement standpoint.”
With Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast’s new national marine sanctuary designation, the area’s water and wrecks are protected by the government, with infrastructure on the way to provide research, education and tourism opportunities. Since the designation came from NOAA just this year, visitor amenities are still relatively sparse. Facilities and exhibits are on the way, as well as partnerships with local museums and organizations throughout the four Lake Michigan towns involved in the nomination. Green notes that some upgrades on the way include a sanctuary advisory council, permanent mooring buoys at each shipwreck (stopping boats from mooring directly to the wrecks), interactive maps, a sanctuary headquarters, and more.
For now, though, the shipwrecks are there for the adventurous to explore.
“All the stuff is on public bottomlands so you can go visit it any time you want, but we want to make it easy and engaging for you. What’s cool about the shipwrecks is some of them you can paddle to, some of them you can do a recreational dive, and some of them are deeper technical dives. So there’s something for everybody in the marine sanctuary,” Green says. “They all represent a different aspect of the Great Lakes and national heritage, and have their own unique stories.”
Diving, snorkeling and paddling a boat are the easiest ways to explore the sanctuary. Several local dive shops along the Shipwreck Coast offer tours. On good days, Green says, you can visit at least a couple shipwrecks in one trip (use this map to guide your trip). Just remember—it’s illegal to take anything with you from a shipwreck.
To start, visit these five, easy-to-access shipwrecks:
For many years, the Rouse Simmons was Chicago’s Christmas Tree Boat, hauling trees from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula down to a dock in the Chicago River. City residents would purchase their holiday tree right from the boat.
Sank: November 22, 1912. Succumbed to a November gale.
How to Access: Dive. The Rouse Simmons is 165 feet below the surface six miles northeast of Rawley Point. Coordinates: 44°16.640’N, 087°24.863’W.
The Gallinipper is the oldest shipwreck in Wisconsin. When the schooner was first built in 1833, she carried goods from the East Coast to Wisconsin. On return trips, she carried loads of fur from the frontier. In 1846, she became a lumber ship.
Sank: July 7, 1851. Capsized in a quick-moving squall.
How to Access: Dive. Gallinipper is 10 miles southeast of Manitowoc under 210 feet of water.Vernon
The Vernon was built in 1886 to serve as a freight and passenger steamer, hauling people and cargo from Chicago to Manistique, Michigan. She traveled fast—up to 15 miles per hour—but at the expense of buoyancy. With the cargo hold full, she wouldn’t remain stable.
Sank: October 28, 1887, only a year after it was built. Caught in a gale with huge waves that filled the lower holds with water. The water extinguished the steamer’s fires, leaving her engineless for the storm. She sank in the early morning hours.
How to Access: Dive. The ship is eight miles northeast of Two Rivers, under 210 feet of water.
Built in 1843, the schooner Home was a trading vessel, taking merchandise, lumber and grain from Lake Erie to the northern Great Lakes. The boat’s captain, James Nugent, was an abolitionist, and it’s likely the boat played a role in the Underground Railroad.
Sank: October 16, 1858. Collided with the schooner William Fiske in dense fog.
How to Access: Dive. Home is under 170 feet of water 12 miles southeast of Manitowoc. Coordinates: 43°56.932′N 087°33.211′W
A tug boat built in 1881, the Arctic was also used for ice breaking in the winter to keep channels open for shipping freighters.
Sank: January 17, 1930. The Goodrich Transportation Company, which operated the tug, intentionally dismantled and beached it because maintenance costs were higher than it would cost to buy a new boat.
How to Access: Kayak, snorkel or dive. The ship is under 14 feet of water a mile and a half northeast of the harbor lighthouse in Manitowoc, close to the shore.