2013-12-19 / Community

The legend of The ChrisTmas Tree ship

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By Larry Peterson


Above, the dock that once welcomed the famed Christmas Tree Ship is shown in Thompson, Mich. in the early 1900s. 
Courtesy photo Above, the dock that once welcomed the famed Christmas Tree Ship is shown in Thompson, Mich. in the early 1900s. Courtesy photo In November of 1912 the threemasted schooner, Rouse Simmons, vanished on Lake Michigan. The story of her final voyage has long been shrouded in mystery and conjecture. The schooner was once the pride of the Hackley Lumber Company of Muskegon. But when the aged Simmons made her final voyage, she carried a cargo of Christmas trees. The ship set sail from Thompson, Michigan, bound for Chicago just as a powerful November gale swept over the lake. The doomed Simmons, along with her captain and crew, never arrived at any port – and the legend began.

The captain, Hermann Schuenemann, was born in May 1865 in Ahnapee (now Algoma), Wisc. – the son of German immigrants. Hermann’s father, Frederick Schuenemann, was a farmer who made his livelihood from the fertile Wisconsin soil. But Hermann and his older brother August were drawn to the open waters of Lake Michigan.

The Christmas tree trade in November, near the end of the shipping season, was a risky but lucrative enterprise. The trees had to be brought to market at precisely the right time to maximize profit which meant transporting them in the most dangerous month of the year for sailing. August Schuenemann was among the first mariners to bring Christmas trees and evergreens to the Chicago market beginning in the mid 1870s.

The Christmas tree venture was a perfect fit for the Schuenemann brothers. They had both moved to Chicago and lived in the city’s thriving and dynamic German community with its yuletide tradition of the “tannenbaum.” August Schuenemann was proficient in the art of sailing and maintaining aging vessels while Hermann (who was 12 years younger) had a more engaging personality and a natural gift for marketing. Together, they more than held their own against the competition.

But tragedy struck in 1898. In September of that year, August Schuenemann purchased the twomasted schooner, S. Thal, in Milwaukee for 650 dollars. After picking up a cargo of evergreens in northeastern Wisconsin, the Thal sailed toward Chicago just as a late autumn storm raced across the lake. Winds ranged from 40-60 miles per hour as the Thal approached the city. Though no one saw the ship go down, the debris-strewn coast bore witness to what had occurred. The rocky shore along Glencoe, Illinois, was littered with rotting timbers, seamen’s chests, shattered masts, and Christmas trees. August Schuenemann and his crew of five had perished in the storm. But the loss could have been even more devastating. Hermann’s life was spared when he remained home to care for his wife and their newborn twin girls.

In the years following his brother’s death, Schuenemann established the Northern Michigan Evergreen Company. He purchased some cutover forest acreage near Thompson in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and harvested the second growth balsam, spruce, and pine trees to supply his annual Christmas tree enterprise. Schuenemann also took on a new partner, Captain Charles Nelson. Nelson was an experienced skipper who had commanded vessels on the world’s oceans before spending the final decades of his career on the Great Lakes.

Schuenemann used a number of schooners during the first decade of the twentieth century as Christmas tree ships. These included the Mary Collins, Truman Moss, and George Wrenn.

Schuenemann’s last Christmas tree ship was the Rouse Simmons. The three-masted, 220-ton schooner was launched in August 1868 from the Allan, McClelland & Company Shipyard in Milwaukee. The ship was 127 feet in length with a 27-foot beam and the depth of her hold measured 8.4 feet. For 26 years the Simmons had been the premier schooner of the shipping fleet of Muskegon lumber baron Charles Hackley. The Simmons then passed through a series of owners before it was purchased by Mannes Bonner from St. James, Mich., on Beaver Island. Bonner used the boat locally to transport wood and bark. The Simmons was well past her prime when Captain Schuenemann and his partner, Charles Nelson, became part owners with Bonner in 1910. Captain

Nelson had the boat re-caulked and in November, 1911 the Simmons replaced the Wrenn as Chicago’s Christmas tree ship.

On Friday, Nov. 22, 1912, the Simmons was tied up at the dock in Thompson, Mich., as a cargo of Christmas trees was brought aboard. The day had started out unusually mild, with temperatures in the middle 40s. But the mercury crept lower as the day wore on and ominous gray clouds gathered in the western sky. As the storm clouds thickened, the captain’s friends in Thompson tried in vain to convince him to delay his departure, or to have his evergreens delivered by rail instead. John Hruska, who owned the meat market, warned him not to go. So did saloon owner Simon Bouschor. He noticed that his barometer had fallen dramatically and was headed even lower. But Captain Schuenemann’s mind was made up. He wanted to set sail just as soon as his schooner was fully loaded. He knew that the children back home were waiting for their Christmas trees.

Schuenemann had several reasons for wanting to set sail from Thompson. He sought to dominate the Christmas tree market and timing was crucial. He may have feared that if he postponed his departure he could be delayed for several days or even weeks, especially if winter arrived early. A master of publicity and marketing, Schuenemann had painstakingly established his reputation as Chicago’s “Captain Santa.” Selling his trees from the decks of schooners docked at the center of commerce near Chicago’s Clark Street Bridge had been his innovation. Finally, Schuenemann was a philanthropist of sorts. Raised in poverty due his father’s illness, he had a special affection for children and provided Christmas trees free of charge to poor families and orphanages.

The hold of the aged ship was full to the brim with evergreens, and the remainder was piled on the deck. The tightly bundled trees were stacked 10 to 12 feet high, covered over with green shiplap boards and tied down securely. The booms of the sails were raised to accommodate the load. If Schuenemann could get his cargo to Chicago by Thanksgiving, the profits would be substantial.

The Simmons was fully loaded by late afternoon and was towed out of Thompson harbor at dusk. Captain Schuenemann reasoned that the strong northwest wind would speed the arrival of the Simmons home. By the morning of Nov. 23, conditions on the lake had deteriorated dramatically. The sailors aboard the Simmons would have been battling for their survival against the full fury of the storm. Although the temperature remained above freezing, hypothermia was a real threat. Enormous waves washed over the deck and gale force winds battered the sails. Water seeped into the hold from around the hatch covers, which added even more weight to the ship. Captain Charles Nelson, the more experienced skipper, was at the helm and struggled to keep the Simmons on course and afloat.

At 2 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 23, the Ann Arbor No. 5 car ferry steamed out of the harbor at Manitowoc, Wisconsin, bound for Frankfort, Mich.. After the captain of the car ferry discovered just how turbulent the lake had become, he aborted his plans and headed north for the safety of the Sturgeon Bay Ship Canal. The steamer was sailing several miles north of Kewaunee and about five miles off shore when the captain spotted an unidentified three-masted schooner a half-mile away heading south. The ship’s mainsail was down and it was using only its short sails for propulsion. The vessel was heeled over in the wind and laboring but was not flying any distress signals. The car ferry captain steered a course clear of the schooner, thinking surely that the old ship would find shelter in a nearby harbor.

About one hour later, the watchman at the Kewaunee Lifesaving Station spotted a three-masted schooner headed south well off shore with distress flags flying. The life station’s captain was notified but decided not to send his row boat to the schooner’s aid in the heavy seas. Instead, the captain attempted to procure a gasoline powered boat but was unsuccessful. Frustrated in his attempts to obtain a suitable craft, the captain called the next life saving station to the south where he knew a gasoline powered lifeboat was available.

Captain Sogge of the Two Rivers Lifesaving Station took the call at 3:10 p.m. Ten minutes later, he and his crew launched their lifeboat and headed north against a strong northwest wind. Despite the rough waters and near freezing temperatures, visibility on the lake was excellent. By 6:30 p.m., the lifesavers had traveled 13 miles north toward Kewaunee and hadn’t seen any sign of the schooner. At this point, a heavy snow commenced, which dramatically decreased visibility. A disappointed and perplexed Captain Sogge headed back toward Two Rivers with his crew, having been unable to fulfill their mission. The Rouse Simmons was already resting on the bottom of the lake.

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To be continued...

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