A couple thousand ships have gone missing on Lake Michigan since the early 1800s, when commercial activity on the Great Lakes began in earnest. About 1,500 of these sunken ships went down in deeper water and only about 350 of those have been found, according to Valerie Van Heest, author of a book on legendary shipwrecks on Lake Michigan.
A Milwaukee scuba diver named Gordon Kent Bellrichard was in search of one of those unfound ships on an overcast day in late October 1971. He was looking for the Vernon, a 177 foot, 700 ton steamer, that had sunk with only one survivor back in 1887. Local fishermen had told Bellrichard of a location off the coast of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, where their nets had snagged on something deep in the lake, maybe a boat. Sonar readings were promising and the scuba diver went in search of his prize. As he descended into the lake, and closed in on the well-preserved ship that was sitting upright beneath 172 feet of water, Bellrichard realized he had not found the larger, propeller driven Vernon, but rather it was the wreck of a three-masted schooner, less than a third the size of what he expected.
But Bellrichard was not disappointed with his discovery, instead it is said that when he resurfaced, he shouted for joy. He had solved the mystery of the fate of one of Lake Michigan’s most legendary ships. Bellrichard had stumbled upon the Rouse Simmons, which had succumbed to a violent storm back in November 1912. There, at the bottom of the lake, off the mid-Wisconsin coast, lay the famous “Christmas Tree Ship”; the watery grave of its skipper, “Captain Santa” and its crew of sixteen.
The Rouse Simmons was built in Milwaukee in 1868; it was named after a Kenosha, Wisconsin businessman. The 205-ton schooner was 130 feet long and 26 feet wide. The ship was a lumber hauling workhorse, traveling back and forth between Michigan and its home port of Chicago on a weekly basis. In the 1800s the Great Lakes was a super highway for commerce and transportation, and Chicago Harbor was one of the busiest ports in the world, with over 20,000 vessels entering and leaving annually. The Rouse Simmons was one of the 1,800, or so, ships that plied Lake Michigan late in the nineteenth century. But it wasn’t until years later, when the shipping industry had been in decline for many years, that this particular ship enjoyed the notable distinction of being the “Christmas Tree Ship”.
The Rouse Simmons
Herman E. Schuenemann arrived in Chicago as a young man, along with his older brother August, in 1885. They became excellent businessmen and experienced sailors. They shipped lumber from Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula into the port of Chicago. But two-thirds of their income was earned in the last two months of the year, that’s when they became the city’s leading Christmas tree merchants.
Herman Schuenemann and a couple of his sailors
The seasonal Christmas tree trade was their bread and butter and seeking to expand that business is what cost August Schuenemann his life in 1898. That’s when his tree-laden ship went down in Lake Michigan when he was on the way back from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin. But Herman continued with the business and expanded it and his reputation over the years. He eventually bought 240 acres in northern Michigan to grow trees that were destined to be sold in Chicago. At first the Schuenemann’s sold their trees to local merchants, as did most of the others in that business. But he eventually figured out there was more money to be made if he cut out the middlemen. So he set up his business right on the Chicago River, at the Clark Street docks, and sold the trees directly from his ship. “The Christmas Tree Ship: My Prices are the Lowest”, was the slogan of his business; prices ranged from fifty cents to a buck. The adults sold the trees on the top deck, while down below the Schuenemann daughters were busy making wreathes.
The arrival of the ship became an annual event; with one tree tied prominently to the mast; a sign the “Christmas Tree Ship” was on the way. For Herman Schuenemann selling Christmas trees was more than a job, it was his joy. He was a great benefactor to churches, orphanages and poor families; to whom he gave away many of his trees. All of this is said to have truly earned him the nickname, “Captain Santa”.
Business was good and in 1910 Schuenemann bought into a larger boat so that he could bring even more trees to market; he became part owner and operator of a schooner called the Rouse Simmons, the grandest “Christmas Tree Ship” of them all.
A postcard’s idyllic view of the Rouse Simmons at dock
On November 22, 1912, the forty-four year old Rouse Simmons set sail from Thompson, Michigan; it held as many as 5,000 Christmas trees, a heavy load for an older ship. Some eyewitnesses said that there were so many trees on board that the ship looked like a floating forest. As luck would have it a storm was brewing even as the ship left the port. The storm was in full fury the following day, the 23Rouse Simmons; the “Christmas Tree Ship”, its “Captain Santa” and the crew were gone.
The Rouse Simmons did not arrive at Chicago Harbor on schedule. As more days passed without any word, the fate of the ship was understood. Christmas trees washed up on the Wisconsin shore. Eventually remnant of the vessel was discovered, a message in a bottle, corked with a piece of wood cut from a pine tree, it read: “Friday…everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat washed overboard. Leaking bad. Invald and Steve lost too. God help us.” In 1924 a fishing net caught Herman Schuenemann’s wallet; it was returned to the family. But the itself boat would not be seen again until the Milwaukee scuba diver Gordon Kent Bellrichard happened upon it fifty-nine years later while he was in search of another ship.
Schuenemann’s wife and daughters kept the business alive for many years after the sinking of the Rouse Simmons. They still sold the trees from a ship on the Chicago River, docked at Clark Street, but they brought the trees from the north woods down to Chicago by train, not by ship.
The City of Chicago had its first public Christmas tree in 1913; it was erected in Grant Park. The main part of the tree was a 35-foot Douglas Spruce. The spruce was placed on a 40-foot pole that was affixed with many smaller trees to give the impression of a much larger tree. The spruce on the top was donated by Mr. F. J. Jordan, the business partner of Herman Schuenemann.Chicago’s first Christmas tree was lit on Christmas Eve by Mayor Carter Harrison, in honor of “Captain Santa”.
The anchor of the Rouse Simmons sits at the entrance of the Milwaukee Yacht Club, in the city where the ship was built.
On the one hundredth year anniversary of the sinking of the Rouse Simmons the US Coast Guard ship called the Mackinaw revived the Christmas Ship tradition. In each of the last few years the Mackinaw, 100% funded by donations, has brought to Chicago and given away more than a thousand Christmas trees. Next year the Christmas Ship will arrive on Saturday, December 3.
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