Rouse Simmons 2012
One hundred years ago...
One hundred years ago, the story of the Christmas Tree Ship began. It is the story of a captain, with a kind and generous heart. A man, who along with his crew, sailed stormy Lake Michigan for many years. He made children’s dreams of having a Christmas tree come true. He was known as Captain Santa. The Rouse Simmons project was fortunate and blessed, to share the 100 year commemoration of the Christmas tree ship with our community. To everyone who supported and came to our event, thank you for making our dream come true, by allowing us to share Captain Santa’s story with you.
Merry Christmas to all,
Maggie Becker-Koeppe, Rouse Simmons Project Chairman
The Story of The Christmas Tree Ship...
Gaze out over Lake Michigan today – we see beauty and serenity. We feel peace, we feel tranquility. But there was a time when that big pond was fraught with danger as men risked their lives shipping ore and lumber, food and goods to the people of the great lakes.
The next time you gaze out over that lake – take a moment to think of the more than 30,000 lost souls that call it home. To this day, just off the shore of two rivers, lies one of the most famous of more than 5,000 Lake Michigan shipwrecks. She is the The Rouse Simmons… the famed Christmas tree ship!
She was a famous vessel under the command of Captain Herman Schuenemann. Every year, he would sail the Rouse Simmons to Thompson, Michigan, load her heavy with Christmas trees, and sail back to the Chicago docks. There, she would tie up at the Clark street dock, be decorated with Christmas lights, and people would rush to buy her cargo.
Because it wasn’t Christmas time in the windy city until captain Santa arrived with his Christmas tree ship.
Captain Herman was loved by the people of Chicago - especially by the children. He never forgot his childhood and the hardships of growing up poor. The captain and his wife were very generous to the people and to his church. He was especially generous to the poor. When he arrived in Chicago with his load of trees, he made sure everyone got a tree. The poor were never refused. After all, he was Captain Santa - for almost 30 years.
In 1912, the people of Chicago awaited the annual arrival of their beloved Christmas tree ship. But she would never arrive. It was the lake – the lake took her to a watery grave. Her final voyage ended at the bottom of a cold, angry lake about 6 miles off Rawley Point.
She left Michigan with about 5,000 Christmas trees on a Friday – it was November 22nd, 1912. And a storm brewed out over the lake.
Saturday, November 23, 1912. It was 2:50 in the afternoon when she was last seen afloat – but she was in trouble. Waighted down by ice……
She was spotted by the Kewaunee life station, heading south with her flag at half-mast. In that day – that meant distress. Captain Nelson Craite saw her in his glasses, 5 or 6 miles southeast of Kewaunee heading south in a northwest gale. Then she was gone.
The Two Rivers lifesaving station was alerted by phone and immediately launched its powerboat. Captain George Sogge and his crew got to the area as quick as they could and searched for more than 2 hours. The sleet and snow blinded the men, the lake was wild, and the Two Rivers Lifesaving crew had to turn back, or they would be lost as well. The next day, they went out to search for her. There was no sign of the ship. The storm had claimed the Rouse Simmons, its Christmas tree cargo and all hands.
Nobody knows for sure how many men lost their lives when she went down in a ferocious storm on November 23, 1912; could have been 12, could have been 23, some say 17.
None of her crew was ever found, but through the years, she kept calling for help. Two weeks and six days after she went down, a fisherman came across a corked bottle. In it was a torn sheet from the captains log, with his farewell message. It read, “Friday…everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. Sea washed over our deck load Thursday. During the night the small boat washed overboard. Leaking bad. Ingvald and Steve fell overboard Thursday. God help us.” It was signed Herman Schuenemann.
The next spring, trees weighted down nets hauled in by commercial fisherman. Twelve years after she sank to the cold depths of Lake Michigan, a fishing trawler hauled up a wallet belonging to captain Schuenemann. The wallet, well preserved because it was wrapped in oilskin, contained business cards, a newspaper clipping and an expense memorandum.
People tell tales of bare Christmas trees washing ashore for years and years after the Christmas Tree Ship went down. Then, quite by accident, the Rouse Simmons was found. Scuba diver Kent Bellrichard was looking for another lost vessel and began searching an area where commercial fishermen were known to get their nets snagged. But he found the Rouse Simmons instead, in 1971.
She’s lies there today - below 172 feet down. Her hold is still full of Christmas trees. Her ship’s wheel is housed at Rogers Street Fishing Village, many people are said to have the skeleton-like trees that have washed from her decks over the decades – but the men – the men are still lost.
We pledge to keep the story alive until her crew comes home – it’s the story of the Rouse Simmons. The Christmas tree ship sunk November 23, 1912 and all hands were lost.
Many sailing ships carried Christmas trees on the great lakes, but the Rouse Simmons has held its place, as the most storied ship of the century.
One year later, a ship was again being loaded in Thompson, MI. The ship was called the fearless. It was being captained by Barbara Schuenemann, wife of the lost captain. She was interviewed and these were her words.
“We’ll load the trees on the ship and tie up at the old dock, and our customers will come to us as they have in former years. They know where to find us. The rouse is gone, her captain is gone, and her crew is gone, but Christmas will find the survivors still on deck and Chicago will have her Christmas trees, as long as the Schuenemann’s last”
Mrs. Schuenemann and her daughters continued selling Christmas trees until she passed away in 1933 (the final shipment by schooner was made in 1920).
A study of the wreck suggested that the ship had steerage and was sailing for shelter when it sank. The mizzen mast snapped off above the deck and the upper portion was not located. The main mast was found forward and to the port side of the wreck with the base missing. The foremast is intact and lies nearly parallel but on top of the main mast suggesting at least one of these masts fell out of the mast step as the ship went down.
Many of the trees are still in the ship's hold, though two were extracted and shown as exhibits. Several items recovered from the Rouse Simmons are now housed in Rogers Street Fishing Village museum in Two Rivers, including the ship's wheel. The ship's anchor was retrieved and now stands at the entrance to the Milwaukee Yacht Club. The remains of the wreck are listed on the national register of historic places.