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All Things Michigan

Michigan travels, events, photos, and more

The Christmas Tree Ship

Andrew Norton

The crowd waited in a frozen silence gazing off to the horizon hoping to see the masts and sails of the Rouse Simmons. But they would wait in vain that day for the ship, crew, and cargo had been lost. Victims of yet another fierce November gale on the waters of Lake Michigan. It was claimed by some that there would be no Christmas that year without the ship’s famed cargo – Christmas Trees. Captain Herman Schuenemann, known in Chicago as “Captain Santa” had been making the voyage from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the Clark Street Bridge since 1896. Back then he worked with his brother, August, until in 1899 when the schooner S. Thal sank while carrying a cargo of Christmas Trees and took the life of August. To increase his profits Captain Schuenemann cut out the middleman and sold the Christmas Trees directly from the deck of his ship. In another attempt to gain greater profits he had even purchased 240 acres near Manistique (in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula) where he hired locals to help him harvest the Christmas Trees each year.

The Captain and his cargo were well known and eagerly anticipated in Chicago. Many times Captain Schuenemann gave trees to families who could not afford them. His generosity and his memorable shopping experience of buying trees right off the deck (he even decorated the schooner with lights and put a tree on top of the mast) have combined to create a legend so great that in 2000 the Christmas Tree Ship began sailing once again. This time the Christmas Trees were brought in on the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw and instead of selling the trees, they were given to needy families.

Let’s go back to November 22, 1912. Just before Thanksgiving that year, a severe snowstorm had destroyed 10 freighters and a reported 400 seamen had lost their lives. With bad weather approaching, Captain Schuenemann ordered the lines of the Rouse Simmons cast off and its cargo of a reported 5,500 Christmas Trees to begin the voyage down to Chicago from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The good Captain needed this profitable run more than ever as there were debts that needed paying.

Barely out upon Lake Michigan and the gale began to blow. Blinding snow squalls and pitching seas bounced the schooner around. Near Two Rivers, Wisconsin the ship was spotted flying her distress flags as she struggled to remain afloat. Ice began to form on the already overloaded ship. As the ice created a thickening blanket on the ship and the trees lashed to its deck she began to sag under the additional weight. A rescue by the United States Lifesaving Station (the precursor of today’s Coast Guard) was attempted, but as they closed in on the Rouse Simmons a fierce snowstorm began to blow obliterating the ship from their view and they were forced to head back to shore. It would be the last time the schooner was seen afloat.

When the snow squall had finally abated, there was no sign of the Rouse Simmons nor her crew. The 17 members of her crew, her Christmas cargo, Captain, and ship were lost. The loss of the ship was mourned in the Chicago newspapers and by the many families who looked forward to her annual arrival at the Clark Street Bridge. Supposedly a bottle with a note inside written by Captain Schuenemann was found along the Wisconsin shore with the message:

“Everybody good-bye. I guess we are through. Leaking bad. Enwald and Steve fell overboard. God help us.”

So much of the actual history of the ship and its demise has been clouded with legend and myth that it is difficult to determine all of the details. Some say the Captain was a man hungry for a quick profit to pay off mounting debts who has been turned into a generous “Captain Santa” through the decades since the sinking of the Rouse Simmons. Others point to the fact that Captain Schuenemann was one of many Captains who sold Christmas Trees along the Chicago waterfront and yet he is the one remembered the most.

Perhaps it is our human nature to want to strip away the negatives and paint a Norman Rockwell picture of a time that was and only lives on in memory and legend. In this day and age of “reality” tv and so many bad things being thrown at us on the front page and the top news story of the evening, maybe it is not a bad thing to “Rockwell-ize” the past into something that makes us have the warm fuzzy feeling that we long for, especially at this time of the year. The basics of the story remain the same with perhaps some embellishment of the details to provide for a legend that we wish to believe true. May the good Captain rest easy and the legend of the Christmas Tree Ship live on.