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The Christmas Tree Ship

The shipwreck legend of Michigan’s famed “Christmas Tree Ship” remains shrouded in equal parts myth and mystery. But what we do know is this: 110 years ago this week, that worn-out schooner helmed by a man nicknamed “Captain Santa” and weighed down heavily by a load of U.P. Christmas trees bound for Chicago was fighting a mighty battle against intensifying winds and waves of a coming storm.

In their final minutes, the Rouse Simmons’ crew had thrown out the schooner’s port anchor into Lake Michigan, hoping to hold her into the wind, archeologists later discovered. In the words of the dive team who pieced together her last tragic moments: “something had gone seriously wrong aboard the vessel.”

Overcome by large waves, the three-masted schooner went down hard on the afternoon of Nov. 23, 1912, her bow leaving a 10-foot-deep gash in the bottom of Lake Michigan. Lost with her were 16 souls – her captain, crew, and a group of lumberjacks who were hitching a ride so they could get home for the holidays.

For years after its sinking, Christmas trees washed up on the shores of Lake Michigan. Divers a century later found her cargo hold still packed with trees, some with needles still intact.

After all these years, the wreck of the Christmas Tree Ship remains a sentimental favorite among those who love Great Lakes lore. And while a 2006 dive exploration of the wreck by the Wisconsin Historical Society dispelled many myths surrounding the Rouse Simmons, some bits of mystery still cling to this tragic last voyage of a crew who had traditionally brought so much holiday joy to underprivileged children.

A Sleek, Three-Masted Schooner

Before the Rouse Simmons was an aging, leaky boat known for ferrying Christmas trees across Lake Michigan, she was a sleek, workhorse schooner on the Great Lakes.

Built in 1868 in Wisconsin, she became part of Muskegon lumber baron Charles Hackley’s fleet and spent much of her early decades carrying 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.

By the turn of the century, she was showing signs of wear. Like many schooners, she’d changed hands and cargo more than a few times.

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 those trips 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

With her cargo hold crammed with trees, and others stacked up to 8 feet high on her deck, 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 south toward Chicago, a storm was approaching Lake Michigan, packing gale-force winds and snow.

This next part is where the archeologists were able to separate fact from myth.

The old story goes that by 2:50 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23, 1912, rescuers at the Kewaunee, Wisconsin station had spotted the southbound Rouse Simmons, its half-mast flag signaling distress, log books show.

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,” according to the National Archives article.

While some mystery remains, archeologists who dove the wreck discovered many clues to the schooner’s final moments. Here are the Wisconsin Historical Society’s findings:

“While it will never be known for certain what transpired during the Rouse Simmons’ final moments, an archaeological study of the wreck uncovered several clues that shed some light on what happened just before the ship slipped beneath the waves. By examining the historical and archaeological record, divers from the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS) pieced together a more complete story of that fateful day in 1912.

“In studying historic documents, it was discovered that contrary to the popular story that materialized around the Simmons’ loss, the vessel was lost under clear conditions. She was not, as legend has it, last seen by the life-saving crew encrusted with ice, through a fleeting window in a vicious snowstorm.

“By recreating the search pattern of the Two Rivers lifeboat and comparing it with the Rouse Simmons’ location today, the WHS deduced that the Two Rivers lifeboat completely encircled the Rouse Simmons and was never more than a few miles from where she lies. With a reported six miles of visibility that day, if the ship were still afloat as the lifeboat rounded Two Rivers Point at 4:20 p.m., the life-saving crew would have seen her. Additionally, the snowstorm that many lake captains reported as ‘the worst they had ever seen,’ may well have been terrible, but it began around 5 p.m.—well after the Rouse Simmons would have been on the bottom.”

When the divers examined the wreck in 2006, they found the schooner was facing northwest, toward the Lake Michigan shoreline. They looked for clues as to why the captain had changed his southern course. The dive team found tools for handling the ship’s anchor and chains still scattered on its bow.

“The windlass was in the middle of being prepared for lowering the port side anchor; a Norman pin, an early chain stopper, was partially driven into the windlass, and the anchor chain had been removed from the chain locker and faked on deck. Using this evidence, the team initiated a search and discovered the port anchor lying 170 feet north of the bow. Given the amount of chain on the vessel, the depth of water and the intensity of the wind, it was impossible for the Rouse Simmons to safely anchor out in the lake. Likely before the Two Rivers lifeboat rounded Two Rivers Point, something had gone seriously wrong aboard the vessel, and her crew had deployed the port anchor to hold the Rouse Simmons into the wind.”

They also found evidence of a heaved deck, possibly caused by failure of the wooden schooner’s deck fasteners. Archeologists concluded it was likely a combination of large waves and its overload of cargo that sent the Rouse Simmons straight to the bottom.

Her Secrets Come to the Surface.

In the days following the ship’s disappearance, clues were slow to come. Christmas trees believed to be from the wreck washed up along the shores of 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, Wisconsin. 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 wreck of 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 to the final destination.

In 1999, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Chicago maritime community revived this holiday tradition, bringing in trees from Northern Michigan. Chicago’s Christmas Ship group selects the organizations that will get the trees to inner city children and their families. Again this year, the U.S. Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw is retracing The Christmas Tree ship’s Lake Michigan crossing with 1,200 trees bound for Chicago.

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.”

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