November 23, 2012 is the 100th Anniversary of the loss of one of the the greatest "Christmas Tree Ships" of the Great Lakes and a special one in the hearts of late 19th Century and early 20th Century Chicagoans. Captain Herman Schuenemann was nicknamed Captain Santa by the thousands of Chicagoans who waited eagerly for its yearly pilgrimage to its Clark Street dock with its load of fresh Christmas Trees from the woods of Northern Michigan and Wisconsin. He was also giving the name Captain Santa due to his great generosity donating the trees to any family who couldn't afford a tree.
Rouse Simmons itself was a three mast schooner that was built by the Allen, McCelland & Co. out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The boat was named after a Kenosha business man whose brother, Zalman Simmons had started his popular mattress company. The ship was launched on August 15, 1868 only three years after the birth of it final captain.
Ironically, the Schuenemann family was no stranger to maritime tragedy. On November 9-10 in 1898, Captain Hermann lost his brother August when the Christmas Ship he was commanding, the S. Thal, went down in rough waters near Glencoe, Illinois bringing a load of trees to the city of Chicago.
As one could understand, the sailing profession is a very superstitious one. Anyone who has ever been on a boat in Lake Michigan can appreciate the unforgiving nature of such a large body of water. If you were sailing a wooden vessel in the frigid rough waters of November in the midwest you would want every bit of luck possible surrounding the trip.
There were many so-called omens that some point to to show how the ship may have been doomed or destined to meet its fate that November 23rd.
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!
Rats, while not loved by many, were a welcome sight to sailors. Known as the world's oldest mariners, rats do not have a love of water and the sight of rats abandoning a ship before a departure was a sure sign of impending doom. There may be some more to the omen of the rats than pure superstition. Rats would hide in some of the tightest and hard to reach areas of the ship and if it was taking on water the rats would probably be the first to know. There were reports of rats abandoning the ship in both Chicago and Thompson, Michigan, the Rouse Simmons's last known port of call. The omen of the rats was taken so seriously that at least one sailor refused to leave on the ship from Thompson, Michigan and instead decided to take a train home. This was a big deal since sailors would only be paid if they completed the journey. This is also one reason why the total lost on the ship may never be known because Captain Schuenemann had reportedly offered a ride to a number of passengers in Thompson and may have lost a couple there as well.
Captain Nelson, who had planned on retiring, was asked by Captain Schuenemann to be his co-captain one last time. In fact, according to Captain 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!
According to some reports, the people of Thompson, Michigan had pleaded with Schuenemann to postpone his trip back due to an 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.
The vessel was last sighted by the U.S. Life Saving Service (now the U.S. Coast Guard) off of Kewaunee, Wisconsin with its flag at half mast, a sign of distress, at close to 3pm on Saturday, November 23, 1912. The lost sight of the ship and notified the next station south being Two Rivers. Two Rivers launched a powerboat to try to intercept the ship but there was no sign of it. The Rouse Simmons had vanished.
His daughters, Hazel and Pearl continued the Christmas Tree tradition for as long as they could even captaining a ship or two. For decades, Christmas Trees would wash ashore in Ludington, Michigan appearing as fresh as the day they were loaded onto the Rouse Simmons due to the cold water of Lake Michigan more than likely preserving them for some time to come. Every year, however the number of trees washing ashore dwindled until they were no more.
Amazingly, in 1924, fishermen in Wisconsin hauled in their nets and came up with a wallet wrapped in waterproof oilskin. The contents that didn't 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.
So today, while we are enjoying our Thanksgiving dinners with our family say a little prayer of thanks for Captain Santa and the bravery he and the other sailors showed in order to bring a little Holiday cheer to the residents of Chicago.
For further reading:
A great article from a great historian and friend, Glenn Longacre, of the National Archives, Great Lakes Region
Also a great book by a great author, Rochelle Pennington, dedicated to the Rouse Simmons