- Rouse Simmons -

The Christmas Tree Ship

Rouse SimmonsWhile not the only vessel engaged in the seasonal trade of carrying evergreens from the woods of northern Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to ports around the lakes, it was the schooner Rouse Simmons, that would become the legendary "Christmas Tree Ship". Built at Milwaukee in 1868, by Allen, McClelland & Co., the graceful three-masted schooner was purchased by Muskegon lumberman Charles H. Hackley as an addition to his growing fleet. For twenty years she carried lumber from mills to ports around Lake Michigan, making frequent runs between Grand Haven and Chicago.

With the increasing use of steam vessels, schooners, such as the Rouse Simmons, were quickly becoming part of a by-gone era, changing hands frequently before the end of their days. The story was much the same for the Rouse Simmons when her Hackley fleet days were ended. After changing hands several times she was purchased in 1910 by Mannes J. Bonner, of St. James, MI., Capt. Herman Schuenemann and Capt. Charles Nelson, of Chicago. Throughout the regular shipping season she carried any cargo that would net a profit but her last trip of season was bringing Christmas trees from Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan into Chicago.

The arrival of the schooner at Chicago, with electric Christmas lights and a tree topping the main mast, was the signal for the beginning of the Christmas season. Rather then sell to wholesalers or retail stores, Captain Schuenemann sold his trees dockside, by the Clark Street Bridge, directly to the residents and increased his profits by cutting out the middle man, however he was also known to give trees to needy families that might not have had one otherwise.

1912 had been a particularly nasty year for shipping. Two weeks earlier a horrendous snow storm had blasted the Great Lakes for four days burying tree farms in Michigan and Wisconsin. Competitors, discouraged by the severe weather, had decided not to make the Christmas tree run this season and Captain Schuenemann stood to see a substantial profit from his cargo of freshly cut trees.

At Thompson Harbor, southwest of Manistique, fragrant evergreens with boughs tied down tight to prevent breakage, were being loaded into every possible space on the Rouse Simmons. With the cargo hold completely filled, row upon row of trees were stacked on her deck. The Rouse Simmons had survived many Great Lakes storms and, although heavily burdened and riding low with another storm blowing in, Captain Schuenemann set sail for Chicago on November 22nd. As the Rouse Simmons departed she was passed by a steam tug towing another vessel into port to escape the storm. The tug captain yelled above the wind "That crazy Dutchman's going out in this, and with every inch of canvas up!" With every penny he had, and some that he didn't, wrapped up into the trip this was a make it or break it final run of the season.

A three-masted schooner believed to be the Rouse Simmons, flying distress signals, was sighted by men of the United States Lifesaving Service at Kewaunee. A 34-foot power boat was sent out from Two Rivers to attempt an intercept but found no trace of the craft.

On the 27th, Claud Winters, long-time friend of Captain Schuenemann, waited anxiously for the arrival of the Christmas tree ship with a group of men hired for the unloading. The captain had once given Claud a silver dollar saying "Always keep this and you'll never be broke." He kept the coin and showed it to the captain every time they met. No doubt it was deep in his pocket as he waited, scanning the horizon for sight of the Rouse Simmons' sails. The day wore on and by late afternoon many of the hired men had tired of waiting and left. Claud had faith in his friend and the old schooner, believing that she would arrive even after a note washed up on the beach at Sheboygan, Wisconsin in a bottle. The note read, "Friday...everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat was washed overboard. Leaking bad. Ingvald and Steve lost too. God help us. Herman Schuenemann." Almost three decades of the Christmas tree ship ringing in Chicago's holiday season had come to a tragic end.

Claud made his daily trek to the dock on Christmas Eve, still believing in, and waiting for, the arrival of the Rouse Simmons. He was found the next morning blanketed with snow by a policeman and when his body was lifted a silver dollar dropped from his frozen fingers, rolled through a crack in the dock and fell into the icy water.

The following year, and every year after until her death in 1933, Captain Schuenemann's widow, Barbara, carried on the Christmas tree ship tradition. Evergreens were brought to Chicago by schooner for several years but, later, were brought by rail and transferred to a showcase schooner.

Now, each year in early December, the final run of Captain Schuenemann and the Rouse Simmons is commemorated by the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, which makes the trip from northern Michigan and delivers a symbolic cargo of Christmas trees to Chicago's disadvantaged.

The disappearance of the Rouse Simmons has spawned tales and legends that have grown with the passage of time. Some mariners on Lake Michigan have claimed to have seen the vessel appearing from nowhere and visitors to Barbara Schuenemann's grave in Acacia Park Cemetery have claimed there is the scent of evergreens in the air.

The sunken wreckage of the Rouse Simmons was located in 1971 by Milwaukee scuba diver, Kent Bellrichard, with much of her cargo still stuffed in the well-preserved hull. In fact she is so well preserved that following an underwater survey of the wreck in 2006 one of the volunteer divers stated "You could pull her up and she would float." Her anchor was recovered in 1972 and is displayed at the Milwaukee Yacht Club.

On March 21, 2007, the Rouse Simmons was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Ballad of the Rouse Simmons

 


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