2013-12-26 / Lifestyles

The legend of the Christmas Tree Ship: Part 2

By Larry Peterson


A photo of the Rouse Simmons during a marine review in 1913. 
Courtesy photo A photo of the Rouse Simmons during a marine review in 1913. Courtesy photo In late November, 1912, friends and relatives of the crew of the Rouse Simmons waited for the ship to arrive in Chicago. Each morning was filled with anticipation but was rewarded only with disappointment. Their alarm increased with each day that passed. When the Simmons hadn’t come into port by Nov. 28, which was Thanksgiving Day, the families demanded action. They notified government officials that the Simmons was overdue. Lifesaving stations around the lake were contacted for any news of the Christmas ship. Perhaps the Simmons had found safe harbor in some remote port and was merely delayed. However, other than the sightings of an unidentified three-masted schooner by the Ann Arbor No. 5 and the watchman at the Kewaunee Lifesaving Station, there was nothing to be learned. The fate of the Rouse Simmons was unknown.

Captain Berry of the revenue cutter Tuscarora was ordered by the Treasury Department in Washington to conduct a search for the Simmons. On Dec. 4, 1912, the captain went through the motions. The Tuscarora’s cruise was conducted primarily in the fog in the waters between Two Rivers, Wisconsin and Waukegan, Illinois, well south of where the Christmas ship was last sighted. Not surprisingly, no trace of the Simmons was found.

There were many erroneous and spectacular reports concerning the Simmons. Newspapers claimed that large numbers of Christmas trees littered the beaches in both Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin and Pentwater, Michigan. Then on Dec. 13, 1912, the Chicago American reported an astonishing find. A fisherman from Sheboygan, Wisconsin had spotted a bottle bobbing in the water. It was sealed with a wooden stopper, presumably whittled from the limb of a Christmas tree. Inside the bottle was a “penciled note in faltering hand” from the captain of the Rouse Simmons. “Friday – Everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. Sea washed over our deckload on Thursday. During the night the small boat was washed off. Leaking badly. Engwald and Steve fell overboard Thursday. God help us. Herman Schuenemann.”

Speculation abounded about the message in the bottle. There were obvious errors in the note. The Simmons had spent Thursday, November 21 at the dock in Thompson, Michigan. It departed the harbor at dusk on Friday evening and was seen by the captain of the Ann Arbor No. 5 and the lookout at the Kewaunee Lifesaving Station in the early afternoon on Saturday. But sailors argued that a man about to lose his life on a sinking ship might easily be confused about the day of the week.

Relatives were desperate for any scrap of credible information. The mother of Philip Bausewein, one of the crew members on the Simmons, wrote the Sheboygan Police Department requesting that the letter found in the bottle be turned over to the family. The police department responded that the report was false and that no such letter was found. The man who had allegedly discovered the note was unknown among fisherman in the area. The cruel hoax was just another invention of the Chicago newspapers.

With the fate of the Christmas ship still in doubt, the Treasury Secretary ordered the revenue cutter Mackinac, based in Sault Ste. Marie, to make a thorough search of the widely scattered islands along the northern shore of Lake Michigan. Perhaps the Simmons sought shelter from the storm in some isolated harbor and was stranded. She may have run aground or become trapped in the ice. The search began on Dec. 15, 1912. A stop was made at St James, Michigan on Beaver Island, where the majority owner of the Rouse Simmons, Captain Mannes Bonner, came aboard to assist. Captain Bonner reported that contact had already been made with many of the islands. The mission was abandoned two days later on Dec. 17, 1912.

Friends in the maritime community rallied around the families. The Chicago Inter Ocean newspaper established a fund to aid all the families of the men lost on the Rouse Simmons. The exact number of crewman and anonymous timber cutters who hitched a ride on the Simmons during her final voyage will never be known. Estimates ranged from 11 to 18 men.

Hermann Schuenemann’s widow Barbara, and his oldest daughter, Elsie, were determined to carry on despite their loss. Two railroad cars loaded with excess Christmas trees sent by captain Schuenemann arrived from Upper Michigan. The W. C. Holmes Shipping Company loaned the schooner Oneida to the Schuenemann family for use as a Christmas tree ship. The schooner was docked near the Clark Street Bridge and volunteers filled its deck with Christmas trees. Barbara and Elsie busily fashioned garlands and wreaths from evergreen boughs. The yuletide tradition continued each year until the death of Barbara Schuenemann in 1933.

By January of 1913 the fate of the Christmas tree ship had faded from the headlines. Nearly everyone concluded that the Simmons became waterlogged in the storm and sank with all onboard.

Then on July 31, 1913, news of the Simmons again appeared on the front pages. The Sturgeon Bay Advocate reported that another bottle containing a message from the doomed crew had washed up on the beach. It was found by a boy near Whitefish Bay. The note was purportedly written by Captain Charles Nelson. “November 23, 1912. These lines were written at 10:30 p.m. Schooner Rouse Simmons ready to go down about 20 miles southwest of Two Rivers Point, between 15 and 20 miles offshore. All hands lashed to one line. Goodbye. Capt. Charles Nelson.” This second message in a bottle was widely reported but future evidence regarding the actual location of the Simmons shipwreck would reveal it was also a hoax.

Eleven years later, in April, 1924, the fishing tug Reindeer brought up its nets a short distance off Two Rivers. The nets were brought ashore and dumped on the beach to dry. Lighthouse keeper Henry Gattie was present and discovered an object ensnared in the mesh. It was a burgundy wallet, wrapped in oil skin and tied with a heavy cord or rubber band. Inside the billfold— perfectly preserved—was the personal business card of Captain Hermann Schuenemann. Other items included newspaper clippings from Manistique, Michigan, along with expense receipts for the purchase of Christmas trees and other provisions dated November 1912. The wallet and its contents were delivered to the Schuenemann family. The discovery of the captain’s billfold provided circumstantial evidence that the Simmons had gone down near where she was last seen, between Kewaunee and Two Rivers.

It would be another 47 years before the shipwreck was located. On Oct. 30, 1971, Milwaukee scuba diver Kent Bellrichard crisscrossed the choppy waters north of Two Rivers with a borrowed boat and sonar equipment. Bellrichard’s experienced ear recognized when the sonar detected a large object on the bottom of the lake. After pinpointing the exact location, Bellrichard put on his scuba equipment and dove down to investigate. Lying on the bottom in 165 feet of water was a three-masted schooner. The vessel was completely intact and in remarkably good condition. Skeletons of Christmas trees filled her hold. Several artifacts were recovered later from the Simmons. These included a wooden stool, an enamel kettle, and a piece of china with the initials R. S. The largest artifact recovered was the anchor that weighed one ton and was raised in 1973.

The story of the Christmas ship has endured for over a century, due in part to the personality of her captain and the perseverance of the Schuenemann family in the face of overwhelming loss. Captain Schuenemann sold thousands of Christmas trees each year, with the finest trees going to some of the most prominent businesses in the city. Schuenemann (nicknamed Captain Santa) was much beloved in Chicago. He became known for his cheerful disposition and his many acts of kindness. Every holiday season, Schuenemann presented gifts of Christmas trees, wreaths, and garlands to both local churches and the Orphans home. Trees were also given away to poor families. The whole endeavor was a family affair with the captain’s wife and daughters helping out. After the captain’s death, his family carried on the tradition for another 20 years. Trees were shipped by rail from Upper Michigan and sold from the decks of rented schooners. Sometime later, the business was moved to a store front near the Clark Street Bridge, where the Christmas ships once docked.

Despite his tremendous success, Captain Schuenemann was not a rich man. The Christmas tree business was run on a shoestring budget. A leaden sky, a strong northwest wind, and a dramatic drop in the barometric pressure foretold disaster. But Captain Schuenemann gambled everything to get his evergreens to market by Thanksgiving. The children were waiting for their Christmas trees. So the Rouse Simmons sailed out of Thompson harbor and disappeared into oblivion.

With an absence of information, unscrupulous journalists made up stories, and pranksters perpetrated hoaxes. Myths were intertwined with facts – and a legend was born.

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