2012-11-22 / Front Page

100 years: Christmas Tree Ship celebrated

Historical society will commemorate vessel
By Char Crosby

THOMPSON – The infamous “Christmas Tree Ship” is being commemorated in a variety of ways by the Thompson Historical Advisory Board. A special edition wine, Christmas tree ornament, the musical “The Christmas Schooner”, and a special delivery of Christmas trees are part of the celebration of the ship’s history and connection to the area.

Imagine a storm of the century. A storm, similar to the recent “superstorm” Sandy, churning up Lake Michigan with 20 foot waves and blinding snow, whipping winds and frigid temperatures. Now, imagine this storm 100 years ago – on Nov. 23, 1912.

In the midst of this storm, a fragile 3-masted wooden schooner, the Rouse Simmons, pushed ahead, caked with ice, taking on water and floundering in the unforgiving lake. It most likely didn’t take long for Herman Schuenemann, better known as “Captain Santa”, to realize neither his traditional load of Christmas trees or crew would arrive in Chicago for the holiday season.


Above, the United States Coast Guard Cutter, the Mackinaw, is shown. This year, the ship will transport 100 Christmas trees to families in need in Chicago. The trip will serve as an homage to the Rouse Simmons, depicted in a painting at right. The Simmons sunk on Nov. 23, 1912 during one of its many trips from the Upper Peninsula to Chicago. Its captain and crew were lost to the storm on Lake Michigan. Above, the United States Coast Guard Cutter, the Mackinaw, is shown. This year, the ship will transport 100 Christmas trees to families in need in Chicago. The trip will serve as an homage to the Rouse Simmons, depicted in a painting at right. The Simmons sunk on Nov. 23, 1912 during one of its many trips from the Upper Peninsula to Chicago. Its captain and crew were lost to the storm on Lake Michigan. Never again would he or his mates dock at the Clark Street Bridge to be greeted with excitement and knowledge the Christmas season had finally begun. Instead, the families of the ship’s crew learned the tragic fate of the Christmas Tree Ship, as, on that fateful day, the Rouse Simmons, Captain Schuenemann and his crew plunged to a watery death off the coast of Two Rivers, Wis. – the graveyard of the Great Lakes.

To honor the memory of Captain Schuenemann, the Historical Advisory Board plans to provide 100 authentic woodland Christmas trees from the area around Thompson. The area served as the location from which Captain Schuenemann cut evergreens to share his German Christmas heritage with the citizens of Chicago. Cut by descendents of the captain’s friends, these trees, along with others purchased by a Chicago charity, will be loaded onto the deck of the United States Coast Guard cutter, the Mackinaw, and delivered to Navy Pier in Chicago to be given to needy families.

The board hopes the Thompson trees will continue the tradition of the Christmas Tree Ship. Members of the board will meet the Mackinaw in Chicago for the distribution of the trees, as well as conduct a presentation to numerous school groups touring the ship. Each student will receive a special gift from Thompson – a handcrafted pinecone ornament reminiscent of evergreens that Captain Schuenemann cut.

This is not the only time the Thompson Historical Advisory Board has worked to preserve the history of the ship. In 2006, a state of Michigan historical marker was erected at the Department of Natural Resources site overlooking the former Thompson harbor. The dedication ceremony included the grandson and great granddaughter of the late captain, divers who explored the Rouse Simmons, and “Christmas Tree Ship” author Rochelle Pennington. Interpretive panels with historical pictures with explanations were added to the site a year later.

Note cards with an original painting of the Christmas Tree Ship, by resident Wayne Stanley, whose grandfather knew the captain, were produced. Woodland Christmas trees have been supplied by the board in previous years, but this year is a special effort, with 100 trees to commemorate the 100 years, and a story of the special schooner and Captain Santa.

The Thompson Historical Advisory Board will also be marking the 100th anniversary with a special label wine, with the help of Threefold Vine Winery in Garden. A unique commemorative Christmas tree ornament, designed by Thompson resident Alan Asp, will be available from the board for this year only. The culminating event is the return of the popular musical, The Christmas Schooner, presented by the Gwinn High School Drama Club in the Frederickson Auditorium at Manistique High School on Dec. 15.

A display depicting Thompson history is currently available to view at Manistique Public Library through November. For more information about tree sponsorship, ornaments or musical tickets, call Laurie Jasmin at 341-6338.

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