Ghost Ships of Lake Michigan
Ghost ships have been sighted throughout sailing history, and many famous phantom vessels still traverse waters around the world, including the matchless Flying Dutchman, most often sighted near South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. Though the Dutchman has no known historical origins, glimpses of the ship have been reported through the ages. Most legends call the Dutchman diabolical, likely stemming from the rumor that its true captain was in league with the devil. Sailing superstition dreads a run-in with the fearsome vessel: an encounter is believed to be a portent of death.
The Great Lakes are said to host numerous ghost ships, including the famed Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior and the mysterious Chicora, whose captain was a known Spiritualist who communicated with the dead. But no Great Lakes ghost ship is more beloved than the one whispered about each year when Chicago snows begin to fly.
In November of 1912, the same year as the Titanic Disaster, Lake Michigan bore witness to its own maritime mishap, when the schooner Rouse Simmons disappeared, believed to have gone down in a violent storm somewhere between southern Wisconsin and Chicago. But because of a lack of physical evidence and credible witness reports, no one knows what for sure what fate befell the craft.
The three-masted Rouse Simmons was not just an ordinary Great Lakes sailing ship. Rather it was known affectionately as the “Christmas Tree Ship,” or the “Santa Claus Ship” the cargo it off-loaded annually at the Clark Street docks of the Chicago River included thousands of pine and evergreen trees from Michigan’s north woods that Chicagoans purchased and decorated as Christmas trees.
Various reports from the time say Captain Herman Schuenemann, his wife, and a crew of 16 men left port near Manistique, Michigan, on the afternoon of November 25, 1912, bound for Chicago, with an estimated arrival date two days later.
In his 1977 volume, The Great Lakes Triangle, author Jay Gourley writes that the Rouse Simmons was spotted off the shore of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, by observers manning the United States Life Saving Station there. The ship was reportedly flying distress signals, but because of the vessel’s rapid speed, the men at the station didn’t attempt to launch a rescue vessel for fear they wouldn‘t be able to catch her. Instead a message was sent to the next station 25 miles south. There rescuers headed into the lake in a large surfboat in an attempt to reach the Rouse Simmons. Reports say the Rouse Simmons was seen in the water, but that a mysterious veil of heavy mist then suddenly enveloped the schooner, causing it to disappear from sight forever; when the fog listed, the Rouse Simmons was gone. A week later, a haunting load of evergreen wreaths and Christmas trees washed ashore at Pentwater, Michigan, but no sign of the ship or her crew was found for nearly a century, save for Schuenemann’s wallet, pulled from the lake by commercial fishermen ten years later, during a harvest of salmon.
Over the years, various theories have emerged regarding the ship’s fate, though none have been confirmed because the Rouse Simmons left almost no credible or verifiable evidence of its disappearance. One exception was reported in the Chicago Tribune eight months after the Rouse Simmons’ disappearance, which wrote of a young boy playing on a stretch of Lake Michigan beach near Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, who discovered a note that had washed ashore in a bottle. The note was written by Captain Charles Nelson, Captain Schuenemann’s partner on the Rouse Simmons. The dispatch read as follows: “These lines are written at 10:30 p.m. Schooner Rouse Simmons ready to go down … between 15 and 20 miles off shore. All hands lashed to one line. Good-bye. Capt. Charles Nelson.”
Today, nearly a century after its disappearance, the fate of the Rouse Simmons remains elusive and speculative. Newspaper reports at the time wondered if the ship had lost its seaworthiness due to decay and lack of maintenance. Other opinions ventured that a tremendous gale from a Great Lakes storm simply blew over the water and caused the schooner to sink to the bottom. No bodies or wreckage were ever recovered. Even modern day diving expeditions over the years have failed to uncover a single scrap of the missing ship or one bone of a lone passenger.
Yet, for several years after the ship’s disappearance, reports published in local newspapers told of unexplained sightings of a phantom or ghost ship fitting the exact description of the Rouse Simmons, sailing on Lake Michigan, her sails in tatters. To this day it is said that, toward November’s end, one can still catch the scent of Christmas trees wafting on the air along the Lake Michigan shoreline or near the site of the old Clark Street dock once used by the merry vessel.
Finally, in 1971 the wreck of the Rouse Simmons was discovered by Milwaukee diver Gordon Kent Bellrichard, during his search for another missing ship, the Vernon, a steamer that had disappeared in 1887. One hundred and seventy feet below the surface, the Simmons slumbered. Amazingly, most of the Christmas trees were still on board.
A number of artifacts from the Simmons are on permanent display, including two of the trees and the ship’s wheel. The anchor of the ship was installed at the entrance of the Milwaukee Yacht Club.
Miles away, a more elusive souvenir survives. In Norridge’s Acacia Park Cemetery, just west of Chicago, the grave grave of Captain Schuenemann’s wife is reported to be alive with a curious phenomenon. Though the cemetery grass is close-cropped and bare of trees, Schuenemann’s grave, they say, is ever blanketed by a festive and evocative smell: the unmistakable scent of pine needles.
Guest post by CE Instructor Ursula Bielski. Ursula is the founder of Chicago Hauntings, Inc. and the host of PBS’ “The Hauntings of Chicago” (WYCC). An historian, author, and parapsychologist, she has been writing and lecturing about Chicago’s supernatural folklore and the paranormal for nearly 20 years, and is recognized as a leading authority on the Chicago region’s ghostlore and cemetery history. She is the author of ten popular and critically acclaimed books, including the Chicago Haunts series and Graveyards of Chicago.
Inspirited to take a course in Paranormal studies? This spring, Ursula teaches two online courses: More than Mere Ghost Stories: Investigating Folklore and The Ghost in You: When the Living Produce the Paranormal. We also offer Investigating Demons and Exorcisms as an online course, taught by Ralph Sarchie. Register online or call 847.925.6300.