The Christmas Tree Ship

Lake Michigan was not feeling the Christmas spirit in November of 1912.  The big lake wasn’t giving any gifts that year, but rather was taking ships and crew to her cold depths.  Captain Herman Schuenemann knew the Great Lakes could get ornery in November, for it was in November of 1898 that his brother August was lost forever when his schooner sank in a storm near Glencoe, Illinois while attempting to deliver Christmas trees to Chicago.  August had asked Herman to join him on the ill-fated voyage, but he declined after proudly telling August that his wife was giving birth to twin daughters.  After August’s death, Herman was undaunted and carried on in the family Christmas tree business. 

Herman Schuenemann became beloved by Chicago residents for brining fresh cut Christmas trees from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula aboard sailing vessels to Chicago.  Each year the arrival of his ship in port near the Clark Street Bridge would signify the official start of the holiday season.  He spread good cheer to everyone who came to the dock to get their family tree.  You couldn’t help but feel jolly looking at the Christmas lights adorning his ship and the tree set atop the main mast.  Children were so enamored that they believed Captain Schuennemann came directly from the North Pole with his evergreen trees.  His ship became known as the “Christmas Tree Ship” and he “Captain Santa”.  Over the years, Captain Santa and the Christmas Tree Ship became as much a part of a Chicago Christmas as did the release of the Sears and Roebuck Catalog.

Rouse Simmons under sail
By November 22, 1912, Captain Schuennemann and his crew of lumberjack-sailors had loaded around 5,500 trees aboard the 123 foot three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons, better known as the Christmas Tree Ship (Note: Schuenemann actually commanded several schooners that carried Christmas tress as cargo to Chicago, but the Rouse Simmons was the last.).  They were in Thompson Harbor near Manistique, Michigan in northern Lake Michigan.  Several other ships in the area were postponing the sail down Lake Michigan because of stormy weather.  Captain Schuennemann must have thought carefully about his departure window.  Interestingly, some of the crew also had thoughts about the timing of the departure.  Several claimed to have seen rats leaving the Rouse Simmons recently, which is a bad omen obvious to even non-sailors.  Others may have been put off by the plan to leave on November 22…a Friday.  Superstitious sailors never start a voyage on a Friday.  So some of the crew, either by omen or by luck, ended up taking a train back to Chicago.  Nevertheless, Captain Schuennemann and his remaining crew (of an unverified number) put to the inland sea on the evening of Friday, November 22, 1912. 

When the Christmas tree ship and crew reached the base of Wisconsin’s Door County peninsula near Kewaunee during the afternoon of November 23, they were spotted by the watchman at the Life-Saving Station (pre-cursor to the U.S. Coast Guard).  The Captain of the station reported in a phone call to the Two Rivers station that the ship was flying its flag at half-mast, a universal sign of distress.  The stricken schooner was “under short sails heading south and under a good headway...”.  After the Life Saving Station further south at Two Rivers was notified, a search and possible rescue was attempted in a power lifeboat, but was unable to locate any sign of the Rouse Simmons.  No one ever saw the ship, crew or Captain Santa again.

Rouse Simmons as she lays today
(photo by Tamara Thomsen/Wisconsin Historical Society)
Twelve years later in 1924, Captain Schuenemann’s wallet was brought up from the depths of the big lake wrapped in oilskin when it became tangled in a fishing net.  Their was initially a report of a distress message from the crew found in a bottle a few weeks after the storm, but many believe it to be a cruel hoax.  There are also stories of a second message in a bottle, but again opinions on the validity differ.   It was not until 1971 that the wreck of the Rouse Simmons itself was finally located.  Legendary Great Lakes diver Gordon Kent Bellrichard found her resting upright and largely intact on the bottom in 172 feet of water off Two Rivers, Wisconsin.  Evergreen trees can still be seen on her decks and in her holds today.  A survey of the wreck showed that the ship’s wheel was missing.  It was recovered, again in a fishing net, in the 1990’s.  Damage to the wheel lead some to speculate that the mizzen boom may have collapsed and broken the wheel off of the ship.  This may explain why the Rouse Simmons didn’t seem to make any effort to make safe harbor at Kewaunee or Two Rivers when she was spotted by the Life Saving Station.  However, a 2006 technical field report from the Wisconsin Historical Society offers good evidence that the wheel may have actually been torn from the ship by fishing nets years after the Rouse Simmons sank.  Interestingly, the report also indicates that the crew had actually deployed the port anchor in nearly 165 feet of water shortly before the ship sank.  The wreck's current orientation has the bow facing the direction of the wind on the night of the storm. (I highly recommend reading the above mentioned report if you're at all interested in the the wreck of the Rouse Simmons).

Tree atop mast of s/v Friends Good Will
in South Haven, MI (photo by K. Walters)
Captain Schuenemann’s widow and children diligently continued to keep the family Christmas tree business alive in Chicago for many years after the family’s second shipwreck tragedy.  The first municipal Christmas tree and lighting ceremony in Chicago were held in December of 1912 in Captain Schuenemann’s honor.  Even now, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw and servicemen commemorate the Schuenemann Christmas Tree Ship legacy each year by delivering trees to needy families in Chicago.

While the above words are my rendition of this story told to the best of my ability, I have to thank author Rochelle Pennington for the inspiration to write this post.  I recently saw Rochelle speak at the Michigan Maritime Museum in South Haven, Michigan and found her telling of the story and display of artifacts recovered from the Rouse Simmons to be fascinating.  There are many more details which I didn’t have space for in my post, but are masterfully put to print in Rochelle’s two books about the Christmas Tree Ship.  I also wish to thank Tamara Thomsen of the Wisconsin Historical Society for providing factual and historical edits to my original post.  For me personally, the story of Captain Santa and the Christmas Tree Ship is a favorite, even if it is filled with tragedy.  The Schuenemann’s spirit is inspiring.  The power of the Great Lakes is daunting.  The lore of the inland seas is ever captivating. 

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