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Saturday, March 2

Gapers Block

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On a storm tossed night in November of 1912, the schooner Rouse Simmons disappeared on Lake Michigan near Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The ship joined thousands of other vessels lost at the bottom of the Great Lakes.

Although all 17 men aboard the ship lost their lives, the sinking was far from the worst maritime tragedy to occur on the lake. A couple of weeks earlier, storms claimed over 400 lives in the sinking of several freighters.

But more than 90 years later the Rouse Simmons is the ship remembered and celebrated in plays, songs, musicals and documentaries. Why? Because the schooner carried a very special cargo -- Christmas trees.

The Rouse Simmons was a three-masted wooden schooner built in 1868 in Milwaukee. It was part of a fleet of similar ships constructed in the years following the Civil War to transport lumber and other cargo. The ship was named for a Kenosha, Wisconsin businessman whose brother, Zalmon Simmons, founded the Simmons Mattress Company.

Around 1870 the Simmons family sold the schooner to lumber magnate Charles Hackley. Hackley used the Rouse Simmons for over 20 years to ship lumber from the mills in Muskegon, Michigan to Chicago, where the lumber was sold.

By the time Herman Schuenemann acquired an interest in the schooner in 1910, the Rouse Simmons had seen better days. But Schuenemann, known in Chicago as "Captain Santa," planned to use the schooner to deliver his annual shipment of Christmas trees to the city.

Herman's brother, August, began the practice in 1890, shipping the trees from northern Michigan to Chicago. Herman joined his brother in the business in 1894, leasing a number of ships. August Schuenemann died in 1898 when his schooner, the S. Thal, sank with all hands while making the Christmas tree delivery to Chicago. But his brother's death did not deter Herman from continuing the venture.

Customarily, the Christmas trees were sold in Chicago to groceries and other businesses that then, in turn, sold the trees to the public. But Herman Schuenemann had the brilliant idea of selling the trees directly to the public straight off the ship. He docked his ship near the Clark Street bridge and boasted that he had the lowest prices in town. Most trees were sold for less than a dollar, and the story goes that Schuenemann would also give trees away to families in need. The arrival of Captain Santa and his "Christmas Tree Ship" soon became a Chicago tradition marking the beginning of the holiday season.

But in 1912, despite the deadly November storms and the deteriorating condition of the Rouse Simmons, Schuenemann loaded the schooner with more than 5,000 trees. They filled the ship's hold and were even lashed to the deck. On November 21, with snow falling and temperatures dropping below freezing, the Rouse Simmons began the 350-mile trip from Michiganís Upper Peninsula to Chicago.

The next day the Rouse Simmons was spotted near Two Rivers, Wisconsin. According to reports, the sails were torn, the deck was encrusted with ice and the schooner was flying a distress signal. The U.S. Lifesaving Service station at Two Rivers launched a boat to intercept the Rouse Simmons. It managed to get within an eighth of a mile of the troubled ship, but a heavy snowstorm cut off visibility. By the time the crew aboard the lifeboat could see again, the Rouse Simmons was gone, never to be seen again.

When news of the tragedy reached Chicago, some media declared 1912 would be the year without Christmas. And because no wreckage was found, the story of the last voyage of the Rouse Simmons became the stuff of legend. For decades after the sinking, sailors reported seeing a ghostly ship on Lake Michigan, its deck piled high with Christmas trees. But in 1971 a Milwaukee diver, Kent Bellrichard, found the wreckage of the Rouse Simmons near Two Rivers. Its hold was still filled with the remains of Christmas trees.

Today the legend endures as one of Chicago's most well-known Christmas tales. Commemorations include the holiday musical, "The Christmas Schooner," currently playing at Chicago's Bailiwick Theatre. The late maritime artist Charles Vickery, a native of Hinsdale, Illinois, executed a popular series of paintings of the Rouse Simmons. And this year the Weather Channel is airing a new documentary about the ship titled "The Christmas Tree Ship: A Holiday Storm Story."

But the most fitting tribute to the memory of Captain Santa began in 2000 when the Underwater Archaeological Society of Chicago and members of the Chicago Maritime Society revived the Christmas tree ship tradition. The USCGC Mackinaw, the largest U. S. Coast Guard icebreaker on the Great Lakes, now docks every year at Navy Pier, delivering 500 trees to deserving Chicago families.

To find out more about the Schuenemann family, the Rouse Simmons and the other Christmas tree ships that sailed the Great Lakes, visit the excellent Christmas tree ship website by historian and author Fred Neuschel.

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About the Author(s)

Alice Maggio is a real, live Chicago librarian. If you have topic ideas or questions you would like answered, send your suggestions to and it may be featured in a future column.

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