Wisconsin State Historical Society
Underwater Archaeology
Schooner Rouse Simmons
("The Christmas Tree Wreck")

July 2006

In recent years, improvements in diving equipment and techniques have made it possible to safely study underwater resources at great depths. Conventional open circuit diving using trimix, a breathing gas mixture of helium, nitrogen, and oxygen, allows divers to work at depth with a clear mind, less impaired by the "nitrogen narcosis" that afflicts divers using air. Closed-circuit rebreathers allow divers to use their breathing gas more efficiently, reducing the amount of gas divers must carry and increasing safety and diver comfort.

The Rouse Simmons, the famed Christmas Tree Wreck, which sank off Two Rivers in 1912, is one of the Great Lakes' most well-known wrecks. Due to depths in excess of 150 ft, it has not been studied systematically in the nearly 35 years since its discovery. In July 2006, the Wisconsin State Historical Society's Underwater Archaeology Group, led by State Underwater Archaeologist Keith Meverden, set out to perform the first archaelogical survey of the Rouse.

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Meet the Team

Day -1: Saturday, July 9, 2006

Saturday was a day of arrival and preparation. We established our base camp at the Rogers Street Fishing Village Museum in Two Rivers. Tami, Keith, and Christa arrived from Madison with the compressor and our two boats, the R/V Orion and the R/V Dawn Treader. Gregg and Jim arrived from Florida with the booster for rebreather cylinders, and Linde delivered a pallet of T-cylinders containing Oxygen, Helium, and Argon.

Day 0: Sunday, July 10, 2006

The plan today was to do a warm-up dive to let divers get an overview of the wreck and allow buddy teams to get reaquainted. The open lake forecast was too questionable to make the ten mile run out to the Rouse Simmons, so instead we decided to visit the Baldwin. We thought it'd be a good place to give Gregg and Jim, our volunteers from Florida, their first taste of Lake Michigan wreck diving.

Visibility was only about 50 feet, which was a bit disappointing, but the Baldwin is an interesting wreck and everyone had a good chance to work the kinks out of their gear.

The wind picked up during the ride back in, and we had just finished unloading back at the marina when the rain began. Fortunately we had a sheltered area for filling, so we spent the afternoon mixing gas for the dives tomorrow.

Day 1: Monday, July 11, 2006

The Coast Guard issued a Small Craft Advisory last night, so we pushed our first dive back to Monday afternoon so we'd have better condition. We met at 10 AM for our briefing and to discuss the site plan. The late start was welcomed by many team members who had worked late nights Saturday and Sunday. Our work last year demonstrated the validity of preparing a preliminary site plan using a photomosiac and we again used this technique. Keith and Tami made an advance trip in June and the preliminary site plan greatly helped plan how to use our limited dive time more effectively.

We set out in the R/V Orion and R/V Dawn Treader a bit after noon. Our Research Vessels are 18 ft Boston Whaler Outrages and are very seaworthy, but it can be difficult to work in rough seas. Large waves and strong current can make it challenging for a diver in doubles to re-enter the boat, especially when tired and chilled after a long decompression dive. As soon as we passed the breakwater, we realized we could We could make 8-12 knots comfortably, so it would be a 90 minute run up to the Rouse. We discussed turning around and giving up for the day rather than risking a three hour round trip without even being certain we could dive, but decided to give it a try.

Fortunately, the waves laid down and, by the time we reached the site, the conditions looked very safe for diving. We tied up to the bow mooring (the only one visible). The open circuit dive team splashed first, with Ethan surveying the centerboard trunks, Tom examining the deck support structure, and Christa working near the stern. The rebreather divers entered next, with Tami and Keith mapping the bow, and Gregg and Jim examining the masts and rigging.

The main challenge in the project is limited working time on the bottom. While the rebreather divers are not subject to the gas limitations faced by the open circuit divers, everyone is still affected by the cold. The original project goal was to make one working dive each day, with a bottom times of 45-60 minutes and a total run times of under two hours. With bottom temperatures of 40 degF, 50 degF water at the 10-20 foot stops, and 60 degF water on the surface, cold was severely limiting. The open circuit team managed to spend only 27 minutes working on the bottom, and the rebreather teams managed working times of 40+ minutes, with Tami lasting the longest at 98 minutes total run time ("the coldest I've ever been"). In spite of the less-than-hoped-for working times, everyone was pleased with their productivity.

We spent the evening preparing for tomorrow. Refueling the boats is an ordeal, as the local marina will not accept the state purchasing card. We must hook the trailer up to the truck, drive the boat, truck, and trailer several miles up-river to a public boat lunch, pull the boat, tow it to the gas station, then reverse the entire process. It looks like we can go two days before refueling - hopefully we can keep the boats in synch and refuel both on the same day. While filling tanks, we updated the site plan based on measurements from today's dive. Everyone received their assignments for tomorrow's dive, which will allow us to get a quick start tomorrow morning. However, it was a long night and we didn't make it back to the house until close to 10, with many team members missing dinner.

Day 2: Tuesday, July 12, 2006

Tuesday greeted us cold and gray, but the seas were flat and it felt like a great day for diving. Everyone was feeling positive because the forecast for the rest of the week is looking good - 2-4 ft today, 1-3 ft tomorrow, and 1-2 ft on Thursday. The run out to the Rouse passed quickly, with our Research Vessels eating up the light chop at 30+ knots. The cold wind felt quite refreshing in our drysuits.

Due to the rebreather divers' longer bottom times yesterday, the CCR teams splashed first. Tami and Keith again studied the bow and fo'csle, and Jim and Gregg continuing their work on the masts and rigging. The open circuit team headed while down the CCR divers were still doing decompression stops, with Ethan again working on the center-board trunks, Christa the cabin, and Tom examining the knees and staunchions (deck supports). Today was a day for ripped dry gloves and cold hands - Tami ripped a glove getting out of the boat (which was replaced on the surface before the dive), then another on a nail during the dive. Gregg managed to flood both gloves.

The early start and fast run had us back early. We filled our tanks and refueled both boats in a light drizzle and finished in time for the group to have dinner together at the Lighthouse Inn, a beautiful restaurant on the shores of Lake Michigan.

After dinner, two team members drove to a spot where it was reportedly possible to get wireless internet access. Unfortunately neither our house nor the marina has internet access, which makes it difficult to get lake weather forecasts and to update our Notes from the Field. They'd only been there for 20 minutes when a pair of Two Rivers police cruisers arrived, alerted to a "suspicious vehicle parked on the corner." Fortunately both team members "checked out clean; no warrants" (maybe that's why Keith required criminal background checks of volunteers). The officers were very friendly and one was very interested in wireless internet, since [he] still got internet the old-fashioned with his phone line." As he left, he mentioned that there was another van parked a block away that also had an occupant using a laptop - perhaps it was Gregg's van? (indeed it was)

Day 3: Wednesday, July 13, 2006

Wednesday broke warm and clear and we met at 9 AM at Rogers Street Marina. All our tanks analyzed spot-on - not only are we mixing quicker but we're more getting more consistent fills as well. A high pressure front moved over the lake the night before and it was 15 degrees warmer than yesterday, but we still had to wear our drysuits on the ride out to avoid being soaked by the spray.

Diving went very well and we got back early. Both boats were still in good shape fuel-wise, so we anticipated finishing very early and making it to dinner by a respectable time. Of course this was too good to last - we were unable to get the compressor to start. We had refueled the engine for the compressor with a can of bad gas. We removed the fuel valve, lines, and finally the tank. The filter in the bottom of the tank was clogged and the tank was 1/4 full of water. After draining the fuel tank and blowing the filter clean with argon, the compressor was again up and running.

Dinner, a bit later than planned, was at Machut's Supper Club, where you can get any fried meal you can imagine. The team is suffering from some serious sunburn - Keith has the most impressive case, with intense tan lines from his sunglasses and even a white line on his temple from the earpiece.

Day 4: Thursday, July 14, 2006

Today is even sunnier and warmer than yesterday. The staff at the local maritime museum offered to demonstrate their Kahlenberg engine for us at 9:00 AM, so we met a bit early to have the boats loaded in time. The Kahlenberg Corporation, a local Two Rivers company, was a famous manufacturer of marine engines from 1898-1964. In the early years, they made single-cylinder two-stroke reversible gasoline engines for use in fishing boats, but later expanded to making diesel engines for a variety of marine applications. Today, Kahlenberg is still family owned (fourth generation), remains in Two Rivers and manufactures air horns and other marine accessories. The Rogers Street Fishing Village Museum has a 50-60 hp engine built in 1924. It was used in a fishing vessel until 1949, then donated to the museum and restored by volunteers in 1975. Rogers Street itself, is, in fact, named after Kahlenberg's son, Roger.

Starting the engine is a spectacular process which requires large amounts of compressed air and fire and skilled operation of several valves. The cylinder heads are heated with torches until they glow red-hot, then the engine is turned over by hand. A critical part of the starting instructions is to "remove the broomstick from the flywheel." They cranked the engine several times, but couldn't get it to run unattended.

The lake is glass flat and we were out at the wreck in under 30 minutes. Every team had an excellent dive and finishing their tasks, with Ethan and Tom studying the deadeyes and chainplates, Christa examining the outer hul planking on the transom, Jim and Gregg working the masts and rigging (Jim mentioned this evening that he hasn't even seen any of the wreck aft of the cat-heads), Tami mapping the windlass deck and fo'csle, and Keith just swimming around and watching everyone. Everyone managed bottom times in excess of 30 minutes, and water temperatures at our decompression stops were up to 60 degF.

We were back and unloaded before two and refueling and mixing went fairly quickly. Gregg educated some of the open circit team members about the advantages of rebreathers - specifically the fact that each CCR diver used less gas the entire week than an OC diver uses in a single dive, nearly half as much. This makes a significant difference in the cost of the expedition and also in the time spent filling. If the remaining three open-circuit divers switched to rebreathers, the money saved buying Helium for the two weeks here would pay for a significant percentage of the cost of the rebreathers. A more immediate incentive is that we'd have our afternoons free to exploe Two Rivers if we didn't have to spend hours mixing. For dinner we went to the Harborside Restaurant in Manitowoc, so that team members could try the reputed "ginormous burgers."

Day 5: Friday, July 15, 2006

We got a slow start Friday due to questionable weather. Keith mentioned that he had never been on a trip that hadn't had at least one day blown out, so some felt we were now "jinxed." After waiting a couple hours to be sure that a band of thunderstorms would pass north of us, we loaded up the boats and headed out a bit before noon. Twin Rivers were choked with fog, and the fog became even thicker as we passed the breakwater. Even with the fog, our GPS receivers guaranteed we would be able to find the wreck and find out way back, but it is still nerve-wracking operating in the fog, as you always worry about being run down by another vessel.

The ride out was a bit choppy and the fog thinned a bit as we moved further offshore. Once we reached the wreck and were gearing up, we were entertained by a radio conversation between the Coast Guard and a fisherman "lost in the fog off Kewaunee." He was within sight of shore, but unsure whether to head north or south to return to harbor. The Coast Guard sent their 41 foot cutter looking for him and tried to track him using his cell phone, but eventually his position was ascertained with the help of a Kewaunee police officer's car siren. The lost sailor was able to hear the siren, identify its direction, and use it as a landmark to return home.

Our final dive went well, with all the objectives being met. It feels like everyone is now "in the groove", with every step in the operation, from gas mixing to gearing up to getting out of the water, going far more smoothly than earlier in the week. It's a shame it's already time to head home, but we'll be meeting for another week in August to finish up.

Wisconsin Historical Society
Wisconsin Maritime Trails Home Page
2005 Notes from the Field
Wisconsin Shipwrecks (Sea Grant Institute)
Story in Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter: Divers survey famed 'Christmas Tree Ship'
Ethan Brodsky's Home Page

Ethan Brodsky <brodskye@cae.wisc.edu>