Schooner Days No. DCCXXIV
Messages From Christmas Tree Ship Come After Years
By C.H.J. Snider
"Little do you know, of the hardships,
Nor do you understand
The stormy nights we did endure
On the lake of Michigan."
-- Antelope chanty.
Although the Coast Guard's searching diligently could not find any trace of the Rouse Simmons, Christmas tree ship, when she was lost with all hands in Lake Michigan in the last week of November, 1912, how she went out is on record in considerable detail.
When she left Manistique for Chicago on Thursday, Nov. 21st, it was already blowing too hard for safety in the opinion of Capt. Nelson of the Butcher Boy; but it was a fair wind to market, and Capt. Schuenemann was not one to waste time. he ran her under small canvas, hauling her up under the lee of the western shore, which was good seamanship.
GREEN UPON THE GREEN
But laden as she was with a high deckload of trees and with little canvas to help her, the big schooner drifted tremendously, and could not hold the smooth water of the lee. Before long she was pitching and rolling and tossing unmanageably in the rising billows offshore. It was blowing so hard that the spray flew over the high deckload soaking it and freezing as it fell, so that she became top-heavy.
Soon the increasing billows broke in solid masses, green waves upon the green boughs, starting the trees from heir chain gripes which bound them to the deck. Most of the deckload washed overboard, taking two men with it.
TWO MEN OVERBOARD
In the sea that was running it was impossible to do anything for them. The Rouse Simmons, like all lake schooners, carried her yawlboat on davits across the stern, a difficult position for lowering at all times, except when the ship was at anchor. With roaring seas bursting high over the taffrail and filling the yawlboat, as well as the after deck, it was impossible to work the davit tackles. In the black night a sea greater than all others wrenched the yawl, davits and all, from the stern, and left the Simmons unmanageable, water-logged, and without a lifeboat.
The only hope now was that the vessel could be kept afloat until the gale blew out or she was cast ashore on the other side of the lake. her hold was filling with water for she was old and labored hard in in the rough seas but there as the chance that the Christmas trees remaining on it would add sufficient buoyancy to keep her floating.
Down the lake they drifted before the gale, slowly losing the western shore, although it was in sight all day Friday. when daylight came that morning they ran up the Stars and Stripes, union down, in the hope that it would attract help. The Coast Guard at Keewaunee sighted the distress signal when the vessel was well past them, and telephoned to the Two Rivers Coast Guard to catch the runaway as she came along. The Two Rivers men were prompt, and put off in a launch, but could not find her. It is dark at five o'clock in November on Lake Michigan, and snow squalls filled the horizon.
LINKED IN A DEATH LINE
To save themselves from he fate of the two who had gone overboard with the deckload the remaining four or five men lashed themselves with the running lanyards to one stout line, well secured to the masts. They were sons of Scandinavian settlers in the west, like their captain, and they all knew how to die. They also knew how to fight for their lives. The death line enabled them to work the pumps and to move with less danger of being carried off by the boarding seas, which at times filled the vessel to the top of her high bulwarks.
The line also gave grim assurance that if they went they would all go together in a mercifully short death throe in the freezing water, instead of prolonging the agony of fighting for life among sodden evergreens and bursting hatch covers.
But the schooner settled lower in the water in spite of their efforts. She was afloat at half past ten that Friday night. But not much longer. By Saturday she and her crew were gone to the good land where it is always Christmas - "to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill towards men."
TOKENS MANY YEARS APART
The last seen of the Rouse Simmons was her storm-torn flag of distress above the evergreens away out on the lake below Keewaunee. It was next year before any trace of her was discovered. This was when fishermen found waterlogged young spruces in their nets below two Rivers Point on the Wisconsin shore. They were her Christmas trees.
These drowned Christmas trees and one drowned man's wallet, must have traveled along the bottom of the lake for twenty miles or more, to be found where they were. The under current in Lake Michigan is from south to north, as the water is drawn off by the mighty pull of the St. Lawrence, a thousand miles away and five hundred feet below. The surface current is variable and may go in the opposite direction due to winds, and the Chicago drainage canal.
A corked bottle was washed up with a message signed "Herman Schuenemann." Twelve years later, near the point, a man found a water-soaked walled on the sand. Although it had been submerged a very long time the rubber band around it was still taut and the papers packed in it were legible when dried out. It had belonged to Herman Schuenemann.
Three more years passed, and in 1927, fifteen years after the Christmas ship went down, another corked bottle with a message inside was found. The message was signed "Charles Nelson." Capt. Nelson of the Butcher Boy, who deplored the Simmons' haste for market that morning when she left Manistique, must have had a relative or a namesake aboard the doomed schooner. It was that, possibly, which made him so vehement in his condemnation.
The Nelsons were a sailing family, even if unconnected with the heroic Horatio. Capt. Fred Nelson took the schooner Alice of Milwaukee to the Gulf of Mexico during the Great War and came back o the lakes to sail the last of the big boys, named Our Son, in the pulpwood trade. When he lost her on Lake Michigan, Sept. 26, 1930, the big steel steamer that took him and his crew off before she went down was the William Nelson, named after another of the family.
The first message was deciphered to read:
"FRIDAY, EVERYBODY GOODBYE. I GUESS WE ARE ALL THROUGH. SEA WASHED OVER OUR DECKLOAD THURSDAY. DURING THE NIGHT THE SMALL BOAT WAS WASHED OVER. INGVALD AND STEVE FELL OVERBOARD THURSDAY. GOD HELP US.
The second, found three years later, would seem to have been written at the same time. It read:
"THESE LINES ARE WRITTEN AT 10:30 P.M. SCHOONER R.S. READY TO GO DOWN ABOUT 20 MILES SOUTHEAST TWO RIVERS POINT BETWEEN FIFTEEN OR TWENTY MILES OFFSHORE. ALL HANDS LASHED TO ONE LINE. GOODBYE.
Cruel hoaxers sometimes fake such messages, and cast them from pleasure steamers for fun. These missives were accepted as authentic when found, and by Harlan Hatcher in his recent book on the Great Lakes.
But there could be no question about the authenticity of the Schuenemann wallet, with its identifying papers held tight under their elastic band. Capt. Schuenemann was no roughneck, but a methodical seaman who had built up a popular seasonal business. His brother Augustus had been with him her in the same lake four years before, in 1908. Herman Schuenemann's widow and two daughters are said to have carried on the Christmas tree trade after him for years.
A Happier New Year to all sailors and their families.