2014 Chicago Christmas Tree Lighting Has its Origin in the Tragedy of Captain Santa and The Rouse Simmons

2014 Chicago Christmas Tree Lighting Has its Origin in the Tragedy of Captain Santa and The Rouse Simmons
The Rouse Simmons how it would have looked today.

On November 25th, starting at 4:30 p.m., the City will have its official Christmas Tree Lighting ceremony at Daley Plaza but many people aren’t aware of the history of our Chicago Christmas Tree.

The origins of the tradition started with the tragic sinking of one of Chicago’s most famous Christmas Tree Ships, the Rouse Simmons which took place on November 23, 1912.

The Rouse Simmons 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.

Ship Captain, Herman Schuenemann, had purchased a 1/6th percentage in the Rouse Simmons and was nicknamed Captain Santa because he would bring freshly cut Christmas Trees from Northern Michigan to their dock in Chicago on Clark Street where he would sell the trees from .50 cents to $1 and even give away free trees to Chicago’s less fortunate families.

Captain Herman Schuenemann

Captain Herman Schuenemann

The Rouse Simmons left Chicago for its final trip on Friday, November 22, 1912.   Sailors would try to never start a trip on a Friday because it was looked at as very bad luck.  The ship was loaded to capacity with trees in upper Michigan and left Thompson, Michigan for its trip back to Chicago against the advice of the residents due to the reports of very dangerous weather.

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.

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.

The year after the tragedy, F.J. Jordan, a former business partner of Captain Schuenemann donated a 35 foot evergreen to the City of Chicago in honor of Captain Santa.

Jordan stated,  “This is the best gift I could give to the city.  I have watched this old tree grow for many years.  Every winter when the men went among the evergreens with their axes, the old granddad tree was spared.  Many times was I tempted to bring it to some rich family.  But it didn’t seem quite right to the poor girl and the poor boy, who had no tree at all.  Now it belongs to the city, and rich and poor alike may enjoy it.  I don’t want anybody to be without a sprig of green this Christmas.  I will supply everybody.  I don’t make much money out of the trees.  What money I do make goes to my boy.  He is only 9, and both his legs are cut off.  And he wants the children to be happy.”

The first official lighting of the tree took place in Grant Park on Christmas Eve at 6:00pm and was witnessed by thousands of Chicagoans.  Mayor Harrison gave his official remarks and then pushed the button to light the hundreds of electrical lights.   Also performing was the Chicago Band as well as a Paulist and Swedish Choir.

This year will be the 101st anniversary of the first lighting and will take place in Daley Plaza with Dee Snider from Twisted Sister performing a medley from his Rock and Roll Christmas Tale.  Also on hand will be Hansel and Gretel from the Emerald Theater and Shuler Hensley as The Grinch.

For further reading on the Rouse Simmons visit:

My post on the 100th Anniversary of the Tragedy

For further info on the 2014 Tree Lighting visit:

The Choose Chicago Christmas Tree Lighting page

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