The History Of The Christmas Tree Ship
Captain Herman Scheunemann, center, and associates docked at the Clark Street Bridge, early 1900s.
At some stage of Herman Schuenemann's long career as a late-season tree captain, he was given the title of Captain Santa. The affectionate nickname was bestowed by Chicago's local newspapers and by the city's grateful residents. Schuenemann's profits from selling Christmas trees had never made the family wealthy, but his reputation for generosity was well established, and he delighted in presenting trees to many of the city's needy residents. Schuenemann enjoyed the sobriquet and proudly kept newspaper clippings about his role as Captain Santa in his oilskin wallet.
Over the years, Herman Schuenemann commanded several schooners that carried Christmas trees to Chicago, including the George Wrenn, the Bertha Barnes, and the Mary Collins. Like many other merchant-sailors, Schuenemann could not afford to purchase a schooner outright. It was a common practice for two or more businessmen or lake captains to form a partnership and purchase shares in a vessel. In 1910 Schuenemann purchased a partial interest in the Rouse Simmons. By 1912, Schuenemann's financial interest in the ship amounted to one-eighth of the ship, while Capt. Charles Nelson of Chicago, who later accompanied Schuenemann on the fateful November trip, owned another one-eighth share, and businessman Mannes J. Bonner of St. James, Michigan, held a commanding three-fourths interest in the vessel.
Throughout the year and especially during the winter months when the Great Lakes were impassable because of ice and storms, many lake boat captains supplemented their incomes in other ways. As a small businessman, Schuenemann not only made his living on the lake, but he also owned businesses that in 1906 included a saloon. In these business endeavors, Schuenemann did not always meet with success, and on January 4, 1907, he petitioned for bankruptcy in the U.S. District Court in Chicago. Listed as a saloon keeper, Schuenemann's debts to his creditors amounted to over $1,300, which he was unable to satisfy. This financial setback, however, does not appear to have interfered with his other role as a lake captain.
On November 9–10, 1898, tragedy marred the Schuenemann's holiday season when, just one month after the birth of twins Hazel and Pearl, Herman's older brother August Schuenemann died while sailing a load of Christmas trees to Chicago aboard the schooner S. Thal. The 52-ton, two-masted schooner, built in Milwaukee in 1867, broke up after it was caught in a storm near Glencoe, Illinois. There were no survivors. The Schuenemann family was devastated, but Herman continued the family tradition of making late-season Christmas trees runs.
District court records for Milwaukee suggest that August came to the S. Thal just weeks before his death, when it was sold at auction by U.S. Marshals to pay fees owed to Otto Parker, the vessel's 19-year-old cook. Parker sued the vessel's previous owner, William Robertson, in admiralty court over Robertson's refusal to pay Parker the remaining $66 owed for his services as cook aboard the tiny vessel. In September 1898, Judge William H. Seaman decided the case in favor of the young cook, and the vessel was sold to pay the debt.
By 1912, Schuenemann was a veteran schooner master who had hauled Christmas trees to Chicago for almost three decades. While Schuenemann was in his prime as a lake captain, the same could not be said for the Rouse Simmons. The once-sleek sailing vessel was now 44 years old and long past its peak sailing days. Time, the elements, and hundreds of heavy loads of lumber had taken their toll on the vessel's physical condition.
The Rouse Simmons, the “Christmas Tree Ship,” docked on the Chicago River in 1909.
On Friday, November 22, 1912, the Rouse Simmons, heavily laden with 3,000–5,000 Christmas trees filling its cargo hold and covering its deck, left the dock at Thompson, Michigan. Some eyewitnesses to the Rouse Simmons's departure claimed the ship looked like a floating forest. Schuenemann's departure, however, coincided with the beginnings of a tremendous winter storm on the lake that sent several other ships to the bottom, including the South Shore, Three Sisters, and Two Brothers.
What happened after the Rouse Simmons departed the tiny harbor at Thompson with its heavy load of trees is unknown, but Life Saving Station logs testify that at 2:50 p.m. on Saturday, November 23, 1912, a surfman at the station in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, alerted the station keeper, Capt. Nelson Craite, that a schooner (the Rouse Simmons's identity was unknown) was sighted headed south flying its flag at half-mast, a universal sign of distress. In his remarks on the incident, Craite wrote, "I immediately took the Glasses, and made out that there was a distress signal. The schooner was between 5 and 6 miles E.S.E. and blowing a Gale from the N.W." Craite attempted to locate a gas tugboat to assist the schooner, but the vessel had left earlier in the day. After a few minutes, the life-saving crew at Kewaunee lost sight of the ship.
At 3:10 p.m., Craite telephoned Station Keeper Capt. George E. Sogge at Two Rivers, the next station further south. Craite informed Sogge that a schooner was headed south, flying its flag at half-mast. Sogge immediately ordered the Two Rivers surfmen to launch the station's powerboat. The boat reached the schooner's approximate position shortly thereafter, but darkness, heavy snow, and mist obscured any trace of the Rouse Simmons and its crew. The schooner had vanished.
Barbara Schuenemann and her daughters were concerned when the Rouse Simmons failed to arrive in Chicago Harbor on schedule. However, it was not uncommon for a schooner to pull into a safe harbor to ride out a storm and then arrive days later at its destination. The family's worst fears were realized days later, when still no word of the vessel had been received. Over the next weeks and months, remnants of Christmas trees washed ashore along Wisconsin's coastline. Astonishingly, the lake continued to give up clues long after the vessel's loss. In 1924 some fishermen in Wisconsin hauled in their nets and discovered a wallet wrapped in waterproof oilskin. Inside were the pristine contents that identified its owner as Herman Schuenemann, the captain of the Rouse Simmons. The wallet was returned to the family.
What caused the disaster that befell the Rouse Simmons? There are several theories, but most likely a combination of circumstances or events drove the ship under in the heavy seas. Among the factors are the possibility that the vessel lost its ship's wheel in the storm, its poor physical condition, heavy icing and snow on the vessel's exterior and load, plus the load of 3,000–5,000 evergreen trees itself.
A recent underwater archaeological survey, conducted in July and August 2006 by the Wisconsin Historical Society, discovered that the Rouse Simmons's anchor chain, masts, and spar were all lying forward beyond the bow of the wreck. The location of these items suggest that the schooner's weight was in the bow, causing it to nose-dive into the heavy seas and founder. Another explanation may be that the masts, rigging, and chains were all shoved forward when the vessel dove into the lake bed during its descent to the bottom.
After the schooner's loss, the vessel's sailing condition came under scrutiny. One of the legends associated with the disaster was that prior to its departure from Thompson, rats living aboard the now-dilapidated ship were seen making their way to dry land, as if they had a premonition of its doom.
Moreover, some of the crew was rumored to have deserted the ship prior to its departure. There is some disagreement over the exact number and the identities of the crew members aboard the Rouse Simmons, but newspaper accounts following the tragedy provide evidence that those aboard the vessel included Captain Schuenemann; Capt. Charles Nelson, who was part owner of the schooner; and approximately 9 or 10 other sailors. Some estimates place the number of men aboard the ship as high as 23, when it was said that a party of lumberjacks had secured their passage back to Chicago.
Following the tragedy, Barbara and her daughters continued the family's Christmas tree business. Newspaper accounts suggest that they used schooners for several more years to bring trees to Chicago. Later, the women brought the evergreen trees to Chicago by train and then sold them from the deck of a docked schooner. After Barbara's death in 1933, the daughters sold trees from the family's lot for a few years.
The loss of the Rouse Simmons, however, signaled the beginning of the end for schooners hauling loads of evergreens to Chicago. By 1920, the practice of bringing trees to Chicago via schooner had ceased. Just a few years later, the majority of the once-proud schooners lay leaking and decaying, moored in their berths around the lake.
Over the years, the schooner's disappearance spawned legends and tales that grew ever larger with the passage of time. Some Lake Michigan mariners claimed to have spotted the Rouse Simmons appearing out of nowhere. Visitors to the gravesite of Barbara Schuenemann in Chicago's Acacia Park Cemetery claim there is the scent of evergreens present in the air.
Today the legend of Captain Schuenemann and the Christmas Tree Ship appeals to a large and varied audience, but children seem most attracted to the story. Perhaps the allure of a heart-warming story mixed with shipwrecks, Christmas, ghosts, and Lake Michigan's many mysteries proves irresistible to children of all ages. At least four histories, two documentaries, and several plays, musicals, and folk songs have been written or produced about the legendary ship and its captain and crew.
Each year in early December, the final voyage of Captain Schuenemann and the Rouse Simmons is commemorated by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, which makes the journey from northern Michigan to deliver a symbolic load of Christmas trees to Chicago's disadvantaged. Captain Schuenemann and the crew of the Rouse Simmons would be proud.