On Nov. 22, 1912, the Rouse Simmons embarked on its journey from Michigan to Chicago, carrying Christmas trees. However, as families gathered at the port, their anticipation turned to concern when the vessel failed to arrive. The absence of the ship cast a shadow over the hope for Christmas that year. Once full of life, the boat was now on the bottom of the lake.
The Rouse Simmons was a 123-foot ship built in Milwaukee in 1868. Its voyage that day was one of its dozens of tree deliveries. Captain Herman Schuenemann, affectionately known as Captain Santa, led this family business with unparalleled generosity, ferrying Christmas joy from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to Chicago.
Before departure, the captain's daughter sensed that something was wrong. She pleaded with her father to delay or delegate the task, but his determination to bring Christmas prevailed. Despite the ship's unsuitability to weather the formidable storm of the decade—riddled with leaks, rat infestations, and confronting winds raging at 60-80 mph in winter—he assured her of a timely return. Many of his crew members refused to board, so it was estimated that 16 or 23 men were on board.
As Winter voyages were known to court danger, yet Schuenemann remained resolute, setting sail on Nov. 22, 1912, even though superstition shunned departure on a Friday, a known unlucky day that many sailors avoided or for when they delayed their departure. Initially, the waters remained tranquil, but ominous clouds signaled an impending storm, heightening tension aboard the ship.
Saturday, Nov. 23, 1912, marked the descent into tragedy. Flying the flag at half-mast, the ship signaled distress to nearby life-saving stations. However, despite Kewaunee, Wisconsin's initial search yielding no success, subsequent stations were alerted. Regrettably, rescue teams failed to locate the ship. Three days later, after families stood at the port and the boat had not arrived, newspapers called it “the year without Christmas.” It was clear to the people what had happened after trees started to wash onshore along the Wisconsin coastline in Sheboygan.
The boat remained an enigma until 1971 when diver Kent Bellrichard discovered its remains six miles northeast of Rawley Point near Two Rivers. The once-mysterious "ghost ship" had spawned eerie tales among sailors, recounting phantom tolling bells and apparitions materializing and vanishing inexplicably.
Today, the legend of the ghost ship persists. Divers can explore its remains at the lake’s bottom, while on Christmas morning, overseers may catch a glimpse of the spectral ship hauling its final load of trees at Rawley Point. The Christmas ship tradition of delivering trees was revived and is now carried out by the U.S. Coast Guard’s Mackinaw vessel. This annual journey is taken by the largest ship on the Great Lakes, continuing to bring trees from Northern Michigan to the Navy Pier in Chicago and giving Christmas trees to families in need during the joyous holiday season.