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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

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Industry, commerce and passenger travel on water shaped Wisconsin's maritime history. © DNR Photo
Industry, commerce and passenger travel on water shaped Wisconsin's maritime history.

© DNR Photo

February 2005

From captains to ghostly keepers

The mysteries and men that power maritime lore

Natasha Kassulke

Captain Santa and The Christmas Tree Ship
Edmund Fitzgerald | SS Milwaukee | S/V Denis Sullivan
Things that go bump in the night

While the shipwrecks tend to be the sweethearts of armchair adventurers and divers alike, it is often the captain and crew who commanded those doomed vessels or in more cases, saw ships to safety, that make the most intriguing stories.


Edmund Fitzgerald

On November 10, 1975, in the most famous – and infamous – shipwreck in Great Lakes history, the Edmund Fitzgerald sank about 17 miles off Whitefish Point, Michigan in a treacherous storm. Its crew was lost in the icy waters of Lake Superior and later memorialized in a 1976 song by Gordon Lightfoot.

What happened that fateful night is the subject of debate. People have blamed everything from flying saucers to broken hatch covers for the fact the ship came to rest in two pieces on the floor of Lake Superior. While the Fitzgerald is not located in Wisconsin waters, its legend intrigues worldwide believers of the "witch of November," the strong gales that doomed many ships on Lake Superior.

SS Milwaukee

Fall 1929 has gone down in Great Lakes maritime history as one of the roughest seasons on record. At a time when the stock market was plunging, business interest on the Great Lakes was hit again by stormy waters.

The SS Milwaukee was a car ferry that traveled from Michigan to Wisconsin. Its skipper was Captain John "Heavy Weather" McKay.

Heavy Weather's luck ran out, however, on October 29, 1929 when a fierce storm claimed the SS Milwaukee and its crew. Sixteen people died.

S/V Denis Sullivan

So significant were schooners to Milwaukee's maritime heritage that Pier Wisconsin, a nonprofit organization, commissioned a schooner to be built as a floating classroom and link between Milwaukee and the Great Lakes.

In 2000, the S/V Denis Sullivan was constructed on site. The tall ship is a rare glimpse of days gone by and is named after a prominent 19th century Great Lakes sailor and businessman, Captain Denis Sullivan.

Sullivan was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1849 and as a child immigrated with his family to Dunnville, Ontario near Lake Erie. He began sailing when just 17, and in 1873 settled in Milwaukee. As an active sailor he got to know local shipping companies and was awarded command of a new schooner called Moonlight, which he sailed from 1874-1885. Sullivan later commanded a steamship, served as a marine inspector, a vessel manager and a marine insurance broker. He eventually formed his own company in Chicago and by the end of his career became a valued member of the Chicago Harbor Commission and the Chicago Board of Trade. He died in 1918.

Things that go bump in the night

Lighthouse keepers hold a reputation for being extremely dedicated and sometimes eccentric. So dedicated are they, in fact, that in some cases they are thought to never leave their posts even after death.

Among the stories of eerie apparitions reported in the documentary, "Haunted Lighthouses of The Great Lakes" (Southport Video Productions) are:

  • A friendly spirit at the Chambers Island Lighthouse on Lake Michigan reportedly released from its earthly bond through the prayers of a visiting nun.

  • A kindly ghost at Lake Superior's Split Rock Lighthouse who retrieved and returned the wallet left behind by a tourist.

  • The diligent keeper of the Old Presque Isle Lighthouse on Lake Huron who turns the lights on for passing ships even though the wiring to the lamp has been removed.

In his book, "Gone Missing," Wisconsin folk tale author Dennis Boyer recounts supposed supernatural brushes in harbor taverns, on car ferries and within lighthouses along Lake Michigan, Lake Superior and Lake Huron.

But it is the Apostle Islands that perhaps supplies the prime fodder for Great Lakes maritime folklore as the islands are rumored to house dozens of characters who linger on land and along the water's edge long after their last fishing nets were cast.

Captain Santa and The Christmas Tree Ship
The loss of "The Christmas Tree Ship," while not one of the most spectacular Great Lakes disasters, has remained a favorite story of Wisconsin maritime historians for more than 90 years not only because of its unusual cargo, but because of its kindhearted captain.

Every year, just before Thanksgiving, Captain Herman Schuenemann's 127-foot schooner, built in Milwaukee and officially christened the Rouse Simmons, made its way down Lake Michigan from the Upper Peninsula with a deck brimming with fresh-cut Christmas trees to be sold in Chicago.

Schuenemann, who earned the nickname "Captain Santa," sold the trees for 50 cents to $1, but also gave trees away to needy families, churches and orphanages. The schooner's anticipated arrival at the Chicago Clark Street neighborhood was a seasonal tradition.

"To step aboard the ship was a magical experience," explains Rochelle Pennington, an author who has spent years researching Captain Santa's story.

But November storms can be very violent and unforgiving on the Great Lakes and on November 22, 1912, the ship was loaded with more than 5,000 Christmas trees when it got caught in a winter storm and sank off the coast of Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

Seventeen men were believed to have died in the icy waters. While their bodies were never recovered, a decade after the sinking, Schuenenmann's wallet was discovered in a fishing net.

After the Rouse Simmons sank, Schuenemann's wife, Barbara, and their daughters ran their own Christmas Tree Ship.

"Captain Schuenemann went down with the ship, but everything he believed in was alive on the shore," Pennington says.

In 1971, diver G. Kent Bellrichard used sonar to locate the Rouse Simmons. Its hold and deck were found still brimming with Christmas trees, though many had lost their needles. Also found were shot glasses, a lightbulb that still works and medicine bottles.

Songs, paintings, poems, a musical and even a wine have been dedicated to the memory of the Rouse Simmons, and for years, sailors have reported seeing a ghostlike Rouse Simmons in the moonlight with its tattered sails battling the winds and waves.

Pennington says mariner's lore points to bad omens – signs that the ship was doomed to go down.

It was rumored that as they were loading trees on the ship in Michigan, rats were seen fleeing the ship. When the ship left Chicago it had an unlucky number – 13 men – aboard. The ship also left on a Friday and many sailors refuse to sail a voyage that begins on a Friday. The Rouse Simmons also had already developed a reputation for being unseaworthy and two years earlier had to be towed by a car ferry.

And when divers found the ship, they also found a horseshoe hanging by one nail, "with its luck spilling out," Pennington says.

Today, the Schuenemann's tombstone fittingly features an engraved Christmas tree.

Natasha Kassulke is the associate editor of Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine.