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SEA HISTORY for kids

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Christmas Tree Ship Rouse Simmons

ine in ten Americans will celebrate Christmas this year in some capacity, and more than 95 million households will put up a Christmas tree.1 The tradition of hanging boughs of evergreen over doors and windows dates back to pre-Christian times, when ancient peoples believed that they would ward off bad spirits. More and more Americans are buying artificial trees and reusing them year after year, but about 18% of consumers still buy real trees. Some go to cut-it-yourself Christmas tree farms, and others buy them already cut from garden centers and pop-up shops— anywhere vendors can unload truckfuls of cut trees and prop them up to display them for sale.

chicago historical society

As lovely as this story sounds, sailing a vessel on the Great Lakes in late winter was no easy task, and by this part of the season, most other ships had laid up for the winter months. The Great Lakes freeze over in the winter, and dangerous late autumn gales were always on the minds of shipowners and captains whose vessels were still sailing late in the season. Captain Schuenemann was an experienced ship captain and had Herman Schuenemann, a.k.a. “Captain Santa” (center), with been sailing Christmas tree ships to two members of his crew on the deck of the Rouse Simmons. Chicago for almost thirty years. He took the Rouse Simmons up to the northern part of Lake Michigan to pick up a load of trees—estimated at between 3,000 and 5,000—and departed for the trip south, down the length of Lake Michigan to Chicago (nearly 300 miles), on 22 November 1912.

wisconsin historical society

wisconsin historical society

In the early 1900s, Chicago and other cities The 1868 schooner along the shores of the Great Lakes had Rouse Simmons Christmas trees for sale in a grocery store similar arrangements, but the pop-up shops parking lot, in Hillsboro, Oregon. of this era were onboard sailing ships, which carried thousands of cut trees from northern Michigan and Wisconsin to the city streets to sell to residents there. In 1912, there were an estimated dozen to two dozen schooners engaged in this trade, of which the schooner Rouse Simmons would become the most famous. The 123-foot three-masted schooner carrying a few thousand cut trees sailed into Chicago under the command of Herman Schuenemann. The Christmas tree business was a way for the Schuenemann family to add to their income each year, but Captain Schuenemann had earned a reputation for his kindness and generosity, as he gave trees away to many of Chicago’s residents who couldn’t afford to buy them. Nicknamed “Captain Santa,” Schuenemann and his wife and daughters also made and sold wreaths and garlands along the waterfront in Chicago.

No one ever heard from Captain Schuenemann after that; all his family knew was that the The Rouse Simmons alongside the dock in Rouse Simmons did not arrive when they expected her to, nor in the days that followed. A Chicago. A few remaining unsold trees can be late autumn gale had kicked up around the same time the Rouse Simmons was making her seen by the main mast. way down the lake. The day after Schuenemann left for Chicago, a surfman with the US Life-Saving Service at the Kewaunee LifeSaving Station in Wisconsin reported seeing a schooner approximately five miles offshore flying a distress flag. A motor rescue vessel was sent out to her reported location but was unable to reach her in time. The Rouse Simmons had vanished.

uscg photo

Within a few weeks, Christmas trees began washing up on shore along the western side of the lake. Twelve years after the Rouse Simmons disappeared, a fisherman found Captain Schuenemann’s oilskin wallet in his net when he hauled it up to his boat in Lake Michigan. With that, the evidence of the Rouse Simmons’s fate disappeared, but legends and folk stories live on. That is, until 1971, almost sixty years later, when a Milwaukee scuba diver discovered the shipwreck on the lakebed about twelve miles northeast of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, in 165 feet of water.

A modern-day Christmas Tree Ship: USCGC Mackinaw delivering trees to needy Chicago families.

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Since 2000, an organization called Chicago’s Christmas Ship, a group formed by local mariners who collaborate with the US Coast Guard, has collected more than a thousand Christmas trees each year and brought them to Navy Pier in Chicago aboard the USCG icebreaker Mackinaw. From there, in the spirit of Captain Santa, volunteers distribute the trees to disadvantaged families in the area. 1 Pew

Research Survey; and a Nielsen/Harris Poll on behalf of the National Christmas Tree Association, 2019.

SEA HISTORY 169, WINTER 2019–20

Sea History 169 - Winter 2019-2020  

12 A Century of the Jones Act, by Salvatore R. Mercogliano, PhD • 18 The Catalpa Incident: An American Whaler Getaway Vessel and Australia’s...

Sea History 169 - Winter 2019-2020  

12 A Century of the Jones Act, by Salvatore R. Mercogliano, PhD • 18 The Catalpa Incident: An American Whaler Getaway Vessel and Australia’s...