By B. Francis Morlan
The year of 1912 was tough for sailors. Dominating the news was the tragic voyage of the Titanic, which went down in April of that year off the Newfoundland coast. But another maritime tragedy struck in November of 1912. It is a story of superstition, ghosts and Christmas trees. At the helm and lost in this tragedy was a man known affectionately as Captain Santa.
Herman Schuenemann was born in 1865 in the mostly German community of Ahnapee, now known as Algoma, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Herman was born at a pivotal time in the history of Lake Michigan and during the expansion of the celebration of Christmas in America. Like his older brother August, Herman turned to the lake to make his living.
At the time of his birth more than 1800 sailing vessels populated Lake Michigan, fueling industrial growth in major metropolitan areas of Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan. The dominant sailing vessel was the schooner, a large ship designed to bring mass quantities of cargo to the shallow harbors of the ports that rimmed the lake. It was in this industry where Schuenemann made his living hauling mostly lumber from northern territories to markets like Chicago and Milwaukee where demand was high.
But as the fall turned to winter Schuenemann and his family engaged in a business that involved some risk: they hauled Christmas trees to Chicago and sold them on a family lot, supplementing their tree sales with sales of greens and boughs to the funeral industry.
It was a good business. Christmas trees caught fancy in America in the late 19th century around the time Schuenemann was born and they grew only more popular in the 1890s as electricity added magic to home Christmas decorating.
But in this era before artificial trees bringing fresh trees to market on Lake Michigan was risky. By late November most of the lake was frozen over and vessels were moored for the season. For Herman, the annual trek to bring trees to Chicago was often tinged with dangerous adventure on the waters of Lake Michigan. He knew this better than anyone because his brother August perished in a storm in 1898 while bringing Christmas trees to Chicago on a small vessel named S. Thal.
Herman (pictured in the center at the left) was not only a business man he was also a community servant. Each year as he would bring his trees to market he set aside a good amount of his inventory for the families of Chicago who could not afford a tree and he donated them. His generosity, goodwill and freely giving of trees to needy families earned him the moniker of Captain Santa, a name he relished and a tradition that gave him great satisfaction. Local newspapers often recorded his good deeds and Herman collected the stories in clippings he kept in his oilskin wallet.
He was operating in his capacity as Captain Santa just before Thanksgiving in 1912, attempting to bring nearly 5,000 trees aboard the 205-ton vessel Rouse Simmons, a ship of which he was a part owner, for one last go at Chicago’s Clark Street markets for the season. The last load frequently contained the trees he donated each season. He would dock near the market and hook up an electric line to his ship, a festive string of white lights happily illuminating the deck where he would invite families with small children to come aboard to pick out their tree courtesy of Captain Santa.
The Rouse Simmons was nearly as old as Herman. Commissioned in 1868, the ship was a work horse for several shipping companies before Schuenemann acquired an interest with several partners. To say that the Rouse Simmons was past her prime is an understatement. As the growth of industrial rail services improved in the late 19th century around Lake Michigan the sailing trade diminished. Sail powered schooners like the Rouse Simmons fell into disrepair or were abandoned. Time, the elements, and hundreds of heavy loads of lumber had taken their toll on the vessel's physical condition by the time Schuenemann set sail with her final load of Christmas trees.
What happened on November 22nd of 1912 is now enshrined in legend, the story of that fateful trip told and re-told with fascinating details that may or may not be true.
Laden with nearly 5000 trees it is said that the ship looked like a floating forest. Schuenemann set sail certain that he could beat out a terrific winter storm bearing down on Lake Michigan. Several other vessels had already been lost to the storm by the time he left.
Omens of doom cast clouds of doubt on the voyage from the very beginning. Rats, while not beloved by most, are appreciated by sailors. Known as the world’s oldest mariners, rats do not have a love of water and the sight of rats abandoning ship before a voyage is a sign of certain doom. Rats were leaving the Rouse Simmons in droves before she set sail.
But rats were not the only uncomfortable passengers for the voyage. One crew sailor surprisingly declined to take the Rouse Simmons home and opted instead to take the train back to Chicago, forfeiting his wages for not completing the voyage.
Schuenemann asked another part-owner of the vessel, Captain Charles Nelson, to be his co-captain on the voyage. According to Nelson’s daughter, Captain Nelson had a dream, the night before it sailed from Chicago, that the ship would not make it back safely but refused to cancel his trip because he had given his word to Captain Schuemenann. Both Captains had actually told their wives that this would be their last trip.
November 22nd was a Friday. A ship starting a journey on a Friday was never looked at as being a good sign. Harkening back to the old Friday the 13th superstition which may go back to the destruction of the Knights Templar on Friday the 13th, many captains would wait until after midnight on a Friday to insure that they left on a Saturday and not on a Friday. The Rouse Simmons started its last journey from Chicago on Friday, November 22, 1912 and left with exactly 13 people on board.
Folks from the point of departure in Thompson, Michigan felt badly about what could happen to the Rouse Simmons as well. They pleaded with Schuenemann to postpone his trip back due to the incoming November storm but Captain Santa believed that he could beat the storm back to Chicago and also did not want to disappoint the kids who were eagerly awaiting their arrival.
From that point forward nobody is really sure what happened. The Rouse Simmons was last spotted at around 3:00pm on Saturday, November 23, 1912, with its flags at half mast, a signal in those times of a ship in distress. A gasoline powered tug was launched from Two Rivers, Wisconsin but by the time it arrived at the last known position of the Rouse Simmons the schooner had disappeared.
Back in Chicago the family awaited the return of Captain Santa. Thinking the storm had delayed their arrival by several days it took a while for the family to conclude that all were lost in the storm. Weeks and even years later Christmas trees – some as fresh as the day they were cut, thanks to the chilled waters of Lake Michigan – washed ashore, testifying of the fate of the Rouse Simmons and Captain Santa.
Schuenemann’s family soldiered on without answers continuing the family’s business of Christmas tree sales and charity for several years.
Amazingly, in 1924, fishermen in Wisconsin hauled in their nets and came up with a wallet wrapped in waterproof oilskin. The contents that did not seem to show the fact it had been underwater for 12 years showed it to be the wallet of none other than Captain Schuenemann.
What exactly became of the ship remained a mystery until a scuba diver by the name of Gordon Kent Bellrichard while searching for the wreck of the steamer, Vernon, came upon the legendary Christmas Tree Ship in 172 feet of water off of the coast of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. When the site was excavated the ship was found without its steering wheel and the lucky horseshoe hanging by only one nail. The horseshoe would be nailed so it was in the shape of a "U" so that it would hold the luck in and if it came loose and hung with the "U" pointing downward it meant that the "luck had run out" and so it seemed for the Rouse Simmons.
Barbara Schuenemann, Captain Santa's wife, is buried at Acacia Park Cemetery in Norridge, IL and her stone also includes the name of her beloved husband (his body was never recovered) along with an engraving of a simple evergreen tree on the stone. Some say that if you visit the stone you can smell fresh evergreens even though there are no evergreen trees nearby.
An ironic twist to the story is that Saint Nicholas, while the patron saint to many, is also the patron saint of sailors. Local legend says that sailors even today on Lake Michigan sometimes spot the Rouse Simmons, still sailing with flags at half mast, with Captain Santa at the helm looking for a place to deliver his trees.
The legend of the Christmas Tree Ship is not forgotten in Chicago. A local theater company performs a production designed around the story of the Rouse Simmons disaster and the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw continues the tradition of delivering trees for charity
in remembrance of the kind efforts of Chicago’s Captain Santa.