Rouse Simmons

THE CHRISTMAS TREE CAPTAIN

The following text has been used by permission from the author, Jim Graczyk.

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Thank you.Copyright 2004-2013 Jim Graczyk

Captain

Herman

Schuenemann

Everyone at some point in our lives believes in Santa, but for many people from the Chicagoland area there was an even a more special person they called "Captain Santa." Others called him by a name they knew in which he provided a service, which was the "Christmas Tree Captain." This "Captain Santa" was the warm-hearted Herman Schuenemann of the Rouse Simmons.

At a certain time of year, Captain Schuenemann would make a yearly voyage from Michigan's Upper Peninsula to Chicago with a load of freshly cut Christmas trees. Upon making his way into Chicago he would tie up along the SW Corner of the Clark Street Bridge . This was the place he even listed as his business address, the Northern Michigan Nursery.

The Northern Michigan Nursery came about at some point in Schuenemann's career after he gave up buying trees from suppliers and hired his own crew to go into the woods and cut trees. Schuenemann further eliminated the middleman by selling trees himself from the deck of his ship instead of to store owners. Time eventually took its toll and by 1912 the railroads and highways were making these ships obsolete.

In 1912, he owned 240 acres in upper Michigan . Every voyage was a make-or-break adventure. Failure to bring back trees would leave him penniless, but success meant doubling or tripling his income between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This years holiday season and weather were going to be different; since only one storm already had took its toll on Southeastern Michigan and northern Ohio.

Meanwhile Captain Schuenemann was realizing he could turn a disaster into profit. The snow had buried tree farms in Wisconsin and Michigan . Chicago tree merchants were desperate for trees. Captain Schuenemann was happy to deliver!

At the Thompson Harbor, Michigan trees were being crammed into every available space on the Rouse Simmons. It was well into the evening when the Captain ordered more bundles of trees tied on board the deck, row upon row. The schooner sagged under the weight of her fragrant cargo. Schuenemann expected this to be his most profitable year he had ever made.

Despite stormy weather, the Rouse Simmons set sail at noon on November 22, 1912.  As the Rouse Simmons swung west-southwest heading toward Chicago she became engulfed in deadly winds of 60 miles per hour. As fate would have it, the violent wind had changed suddenly, producing a furious snowstorm and an incredible drop in temperature. A thick blanket of ice quickly thickened as the unrelenting waves pounded the ship. Battered hatch covers could no longer prevent water from entering the hold where it quickly turned into ice on the trees.

From the station tower at Sturgeon Bay , Wisconsin , men sighted the Rouse Simmons flying distress signals as she continued to move low in the water, driven along by the force of the gale. A rescue team was dispatched in an attempt intercept the suffering schooner.

 Visibility was difficult and a two hour search proving to be unsuccessful. Just then there was a break in the snowstorm and the ship sighted. From what men could make of it, the ship was barely afloat and resembled a floating piece of ice. Rescuers desperately moved full steam ahead and blinding snow again made it impossible to see the schooner. The Rouse Simmons vanished from sight and was never seen again, at least they thought...

The story doesn't end there, sailors have for years reported seeing a ghostlike Rouse Simmons in the moonlight, sails blowing in tatters, battling waves in Lake Michigan. One moment the ship is there, then suddenly it fades away into the darkness.

Eventually divers found the wreck of the Rouse Simmons in 165 feet of water off the coast of Two Rivers Wisconsin. Some of the historic ship was salvaged for display, which included the anchor that stands today at the entrance to the Milwaukee Yacht Club. The schooner's wheel is on display at the Rogers Street Fishing Village in Two Rivers , Wisconsin .

Though Captain Schuenemann's body was never recovered, his wife is buried in Acacia Cemetery , Section Westaria, 21-4.  Strangely the grave is said to produce the scent of fresh cut spruce and balsam. ( Acacia Cemetery is located in Chicago, 7800 W. Irving Park Road .)

(The Schuenemann grave)

 

 

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Copyright 2004-2013 Jim Graczyk. All rights reserved.

Contact Author: Jim Graczyk.