When the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw docked at Chicago’s Navy Pier this weekend carrying a load of 1,200 Christmas trees from Northern Michigan, it did more than just ensure a happier holiday for needy families.
It’s recreating a Christmas journey that became a tragic Great Lakes legend when the Rouse Simmons – known as “The Christmas Tree Ship” – sank in a November 1912 storm off the coast of Two Rivers, Wis.
The sleek three-masted schooner didn’t start out carrying Christmas trees across Lake Michigan, though.
Built in 1868 in Wisconsin, she became part of Muskegon lumber baron Charles Hackley’s fleet and spent much of her early decades ferrying wood from his mills to other ports.
At one point, U.S. Customs records showed she was making nearly weekly runs from Grand Haven to Chicago, according to the National Archives.
(This is inspiring story of “Captain Santa” who sailed a three-masted schooner on Lake Michigan 100 years ago, delivering each December thousands of Christmas trees to be sold to Chicago families straight from the deck of his ship tied up at the Clark Street pier. Scenes are from the 50-minute documentary film on DVD “Chicago’s Christmas Tree Ship.” Courtesy of VAPBob and YouTube. Posted on Nov 15, 2016)
By the turn of the century, she was an aging workhorse. Like many schooners, she changed hands and cargo.
By 1910, Capt. Herman Schuenemann owned a small interest in her.
For years his family had been among the two dozen schooner crews doing late-season Christmas tree runs, bringing evergreens from northern Michigan and Wisconsin to Chicago’s docks.
The ships would be decorated with lights, and the families could come aboard and pick out an inexpensive tree.
And the captains, by cutting out the retail middleman, could get a decent profit from a holiday run.
Known for his generosity, Schuenemann earned the nickname “Captain Santa.”
According to The National Archives research by Glenn Longacre: “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.”
When he set out for his late-season run in November 1912, researchers say the Rouse Simmons was one of only a handful of ships to attempt it that year.
Schuenemann knew they could be deadly.
His older brother, August Schuenemann, had died in a Christmas-tree hauling trip in 1898 when the schooner S. Thal sank in a storm.
The Wreck of the Rouse Simmons
Crammed with up to 5,000 trees, some say the Rouse Simmons looked like a floating forest when she pulled away from Thompson, Michigan, near the Upper Peninsula’s Manistique, on Friday, Nov. 22, 1912.
As she headed toward Chicago, a storm whipped across Lake Michigan, packing gale-force winds and snow.
By 2:50 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23, 1912, rescuers at the Kewaunee, Wis., station had spotted the southbound Rouse Simmons, its half-mast flag signaling distress, log books show.
(It was over 100 years ago, but the final chapter of the legendary ship, the Rouse Simmons, that disappeared off the lake shore coast in 1912, has yet to be written. Courtesy of NBC 26 and YouTube. Posted on Dec 18, 2014)
Because the station was without its gas-powered lifeboat, Kewaunee staff called the station south of them.
Could they help? Two Rivers Station surfmen launched their powerboat to the spot where they thought they’d intersect with the Christmas Tree Ship.
“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,” the National Archives article said.
The entire crew was lost, believed to be around 14 men.
There were also accounts that lumberjacks working in Northern Michigan had hitched a ride, trying to get home to Chicago for Christmas.
That would push the death toll to possibly 23.
Afterward, there was much speculation about what sunk the Rouse Simmons.
Her workhorse history had left her in poor shape, some suggested.
And her extra-heavy load of holiday trees likely became encased in spray, ice and snow, helping to send her to the bottom.
Her Secrets Come to the Surface.
Clues to her last moments were slow to come.
Christmas trees believed to be from the wreck washed up along the shores Michigan and Wisconsin that December, and were brought up in fishing nets for years to come.
Then there was a message in a bottle, believed to be from the Rouse Simmons crew, that washed up in Sheboygan, Wis.
The bottle was corked with a tiny piece of pine tree, according to research by Lori Jacobson-Tews.
The message read: “Friday … everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat washed overboard. Leaking bad. Invald and Steve lost too. God help us.”
The next clue was found in 1924, when Capt. Schuenemann’s wallet came up in the net of a fishing trawler.
Wrapped it oilskin, the wallet was well-preserved and was later returned to his family.
The confirmation came in 1971, when the Rouse Simmons was discovered by scuba diver Kent Bellrichard of Milwaukee.
Recreating Captain Santa
For years after The Christmas Tree Ship sank, the captain’s wife, Barbara Schuenemann, and her daughters continued to sell evergreens along the Chicago pier.
They initially used schooners, but soon switched to railcars and other transportation to get their trees.
In 2000, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Chicago maritime community revived this holiday tradition, bringing in trees from Northern Michigan.
Along the way, they stop and float a wreath at the spot where the Rouse Simmons sank.
Chicago’s Christmas Ship Committee selects the organizations that will get the trees to needy families.
“This event has become one the citizens look forward to each year, and in the eyes of many one that signifies the start of the Christmas season in Chicago,” the Coast Guard said.
The Legend Continues
Like most well-known shipwrecks on the Great Lakes, the stories surrounding the Rouse Simmons haven’t faded away.
Some Great Lakes mariners claim to have seen the three-masted schooner appear out of nowhere – then disappear just as silently.
Other ghostly visits have occurred in Chicago’s Acacia Park Cemetery, where the captain’s wife, Barbara, is buried, according to Longacre’s account: “Visitors to the gravesite … claim there is the scent of evergreens present in the air.”