Wis. town to honor 100th anniversary of shipwreck
TWO RIVERS, Wis. (AP) — An eastern Wisconsin fishing village is hosting a centennial celebration in honor of a schooner that sank in Lake Michigan exactly 100 years ago, killing everyone aboard.
The Rouse Simmons was carrying Christmas trees from Michigan to Illinois on Nov. 23, 1912, when frigid swells caused the vessel to capsize off Rawley Point in Two Rivers. Knowing death was imminent Capt. Herman Schuenemann frantically scribbled his last known words — a plea for God to spare the lives of him and his crew.
Schuenemann was a beloved figure who for 13 years delivered his cargo of Christmas trees from Thompson, Mich., to Chicago, according to a report in the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter (http://htrne.ws/TbN6K6 ). The people of Chicago were so grateful for his trips that they nicknamed him "Captain Santa" and his ship "The Christmas Tree ship."
To honor the lives lost, the Rogers Street Fishing Village in Two Rivers is hosting a centennial celebration Friday and Saturday. Plans call for a musical performance and a re-enactment of ship officials distributing Christmas trees.
The Schuenemann family's legacy began with the captain's brother, August, who began shipping Christmas trees in 1876, said Rochelle Pennington, the Kewaskum author of "The Historic Christmas Tree Ship." August's ship, the S.Thal, sank in November 1898, and Herman carried on the tradition from then until his death 14 years later
"Remarkably, despite his brother's death, and despite the ever-present danger of sailing November's stormed-tossed waters, Capt. Herman summoned the courage to load another cargo of evergreens that very same year," Pennington said.
A number of omens of foreshadowed the sinking and scared off the original crew, according to Maggie Becker-Koeppe. The chairwoman of the Centennial Commemoration said the ship sailed out on a Friday, which was considered bad luck, and rats were seen fleeing the ship.
Undaunted, Schuenemann found a new crew and continued with the trip.
None of the new crew members logged his name, so no one knew the exact death toll.
"When they went missing, they weren't sure exactly how many went missing, but they figure maybe around 15 or 16 had lost their lives," Becker-Koeppe said.
Even before setting sail Nov. 22, forecasts called for strong gales. Indeed, by the next morning the Rouse Simmons was trapped in the middle of the maelstrom.
"Winds were howling. Gale force gusts hit 60-80 mph. Ice was freezing to beards and brows, numbing sailors to the bone," Pennington said. "And towering seas were now climbing aboard the Simmons, invading it, penetrating every nook and cranny."
The ship pressed on through the storm. A rescue crew at the Kewaunee U.S. Life Saving Station spotted the ship's distress flag, but the station only had rowboats, making a rescue attempt too dangerous.
Unable to withstand the strengthening blizzard and towering swells, the Rouse Simmons eventually sank. Debris from the wreck washed up on shore, including a bottle that was found six months later. Pennington said the note detailed the ship's final moments and included the desperate captain's last-known words: "God help us."
The ship's ill-fated last trip was memorialized in a 1996 musical titled, "The Christmas Schooner." The musical tours across the nation and plays every year in Chicago.
In additional to a final performance in Two Rivers with the current cast, the two-day celebration will include a re-enactment involving The Christmas Tree ship. A U.S. Coast Guard ship will sail a cargo of Christmas trees through Lake Michigan to Rogers Street, where the trees will be given out to the public.
"It's just been a story forever and ever," Becker-Koeppe said. "Our whole committee felt it was very important that we do this."