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The Lore of the Rouse Simmons, Chicago's Christmas Tree Ship and Captain Santa

Headline Dec 5, 1912, Chicago Tribune


The legends and superstitions surrounding ships and the sailors who manned them are centuries old and worldwide but it is not necessary for you to live on an ocean shore to share or appreciate those stories.  Chicago is on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan, one of the “Great Lakes” of North America.   The label of “Lake” really does not do it justice and anyone who has ever traveled on it by boat for recreation or business will tell you it is more of a small ocean than a lake, being roughly 300 miles long and about 120 miles across with an average depth of nearly 300 feet.   It also is a very unforgiving body of water and has its share of storms or gales that have claimed a large number of ships.  One estimate of the number of ships lost to the waters of Lake Michigan is roughly 2,500 since records have been kept with up to 1,000 of those still undiscovered in its waters.  The “Rouse Simmons” affectionately referred to as Chicago’s “Christmas Tree Ship” was one of those less fortunate ships and its captain, Hermann Schuenemann, affectionately referred to as “Captain Santa”, was one of the 17 (number still in dispute) souls lost when she went down.

A great book about the ship was written by Rochelle Pennington and I had the fortunate opportunity of meeting her at the National Archives Great Lakes Region back in 2006.  She is very passionate about the subject and has written an adult and children’s book about the Rouse Simmons.  You can purchase a signed copy of the book (because I’m not giving you mine) at There is also a great article written by Glenn Longacre, an archivist and all around great guy at the Great Lakes Region, in the Winter 2006 Edition of Prologue . Much of the information in this article is directly from these two publications.

The Rouse Simmons was by no means the only ship that brought freshly cut evergreens from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the City of Chicago or the first for that matter.  Lumber was big business in the late 19th century and in high demand in growing areas such as Chicago.  Shipment by sail was an efficient way of bringing the much needed resource to the city.  Christmas Trees were a natural offshoot of the business.   Surprisingly Hermann’s brother August was the first of the two to perish when his ship the S. Thal broke apart in a storm in early November 1898 while hauling a load of Christmas Trees to Chicago.  The S. Thal was lost near Glencoe, Illinois just two months after Hermann and his wife Barbara had their two twin daughters, Hazel and Pearl.  They also had an older daughter, Elsie, who would later, with her mother and sisters, continue Hermann’s tradition of bringing Christmas Trees to Chicago.

So loved were the Schuenemanns by the City of Chicago that the first ever “Municipal Christmas Tree” was donated by one of Captain Schuenmann’s business partners, F.J. Jordan,  in honor of both Christmas tree captains.  There was a huge celebration on Christmas Eve afternoon of 1913 and it is estimated that nearly 100,000 persons were in attendance along Michigan Avenue between Monroe and Washington which prompted officials to make it a yearly tradition.

“Captain Santa” never got rich by risking his life every year to deliver Christmas Trees to Chicago but his renowned generosity is largely responsible for the local newspapers and churches bestowing this name upon him.    Many of the trees he would donate to the neediest of families and to the Chicago area churches and orphanages.   His wife Barbara and his daughter, Elsie, Pearl and Hazel continued the tradition of their father for many years by piloting vessels themselves from the U.P. of Michigan to Chicago and risking their lives in much the same way.  When shipping by sail faded into memory they continued to sell Christmas Trees after even after their mother’s death in 1933.  In 1934 they sold trees from a tiny store at 1641 North LaSalle Street under a small sign that simply read, “Captain and Mrs. H. Schuenemann’s  Daughters”.

There is much lore surrounding the Rouse Simmons and its fateful l, November 1912 journey.  Much of this lore surrounds the omens or superstitions that were ignored prior to and during its journey.   The old, salty sea captains and sailors alike were a very superstitious bunch and if you have ever been tossed around by an unforgiving body of water during a storm you can certainly understand that they wanted every bit of luck on their side! 

The Rouse Simmons set sail on November 22, 1912 which so happened to be a Friday.  In maritime lore, Friday is the absolutely worst day to set sail on and many captains would wait until after midnight on Friday before setting sail.  It is unknown where the superstition started but could be due to the Christian influence and that Jesus Christ died on a Friday.  There is also the story of the Knights Templar being executed under orders of the Pope on a Friday the 13th.  I have seen mention of sailors avoiding setting sail on a Friday in print back to the mid 1800s.  Whatever the case, it is unclear why Captain Schuenemann decided to sail on this most unlucky day but it would prove to not be the only ominous sign that was ignored. 

According to author Rochelle Pennington, the Chicago Record Herald interviewed the daughter of Schuenemann’s partner, Captain Charles Nelson and published an account in the December 6, 1912 edition.  Alvida told the Record Herald that her father had a premonition the night before they sailed that something terrible was going to happen.  She pleaded with her father not to sail with Schuenemann on that Friday but Nelson said that he had given his word to Schuenemann and could not back out.  Alvida would never see her father alive again.

Actually both men, Nelson and Schuenemann, according to the accounts of their wives, had promised to make this their last Christmas tree run, which is also a very strange coincidence or premonition depending upon how you look at it.

Interviews were made of some of the residents of Thompson , Michigan, near where the Rouse Simmons had docked before making its return trip to Chicago.  The residents of Thompson loved Captain Schuenemann and the feeling was mutual.  In fact one of his last acts before setting sail for Chicago was to give away candy to the children of the town.  A number of residents pleaded with Schuenemann to not set sail and to wait out the storm but according to those interviews,  made for a 1975 Milwaukee television documentary, Schuenemann stated that the people in Chicago have to have their trees for Christmas.  He supposedly said this as he was watching rats deserting his ship. 

According to sea lore, rats aboard a ship is actually a good omen.   Rats are considered by some to be the wisest of mariners.  I don’t think that people are saying that they make good sailors but rats, like cats, will avoid water at all costs and they can scurry around in areas that are largely unseen and inaccessible to humans so you never know what they noticed about the aging (built in 1868) Rouse Simmons.   That is probably why when rats leave ships in a hurry it is considered a bad omen and in the sea-faring circles one of the worst possible omens.  It has also been said that there were rats deserting the Rouse Simmons even before she set sail for Michigan.   There were at least two sailors who refused to sail back on the Rouse Simmons due to both the impending storms and the fact that the rats were leaving in droves.  This was a big deal since the sailors were not paid if they did not complete the voyage.  The two sailors (some accounts mention three sailors but the exact number is not known) were Hogan Hoganson and “Big Bill Sullivan” whose real name was William F. Tietz.   Hogan Hoganson was interviewed by the Chicago Inter Ocean and he testified to the fact that he witnessed the rats leaving the ship and when the younger sailors saw that he was going back by train they laughed at him.

The number 13 has long been considered a less than lucky number and many sailors will refuse to sail with 13 souls aboard but as luck or lack thereof would have it, the Rouse Simmons left Chicago with just that many aboard.  According to some accounts, Captain Schuenemann was asked how he felt about this before he set sail and he merely stated that he wasn’t afraid.  It is unclear how many persons were actually aboard the ship when it made its doomed trip back to Chicago because the ship’s log has never been found and it was stated by persons in Michigan that the Captain had agreed to give a group of lumberjacks a ride back to Chicago.

It is also considered good luck to have a horse shoe nailed to the craft with its open end pointing up in order to “hold the luck in”  It is said that if it is upside down or in an inverted “U” position than the ship’s luck is “running out”.  It is interesting to note that when the wreck of the Rouse Simmons was finally discovered by a scuba diver, Gordon Kent Bellrichard, in October 1971, its horseshoe was hanging upside down by a single nail.   Of course it is unclear if the horseshoe was in this position before the ship sank or if it gradually settled in this position after being submerged in 172 feet of water for nearly sixty years.  Either way it did seem as though the aging ship’s luck had definitely “run out”.

The Rouse Simmons was first seen in trouble by the Kewaunee, Wisconsin  U.S. Life Saving Station.  The Life Saving Service was the predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard.  The Kewaunee crew sighted the Rouse Simmons with its distress flags flying and obviously in trouble several miles out in the lake.  The Rouse Simmons was fighting for its life.  It was fully loaded with 15,000 Christmas Trees and fighting a November Gale that rivaled that which killed the captain’s brother August in 1898.   She was battling a storm with sustained winds of 60-80mpg, waves upwards of 30 feet  and temperatures that  covered ship and sailors alike with a sheet of numbing ice.  The Kewaunee crew knew that they couldn’t reach her because they only had row boats.  They put out a call to Captain Sogge of the Two Rivers Life Saving Station to the south and the Two Rivers crew launched a power lifeboat at about 3:10pm on November 23rd.  By 4:20pm they were near where they expected to see the Rouse Simmons but there was no ship in sight.  It was starting to snow heavily and while they searched feverishly they had to give up the search assuming the Rouse Simmons had gone down or miraculously made it through the storm.   Eventually when nearly a month had gone by and pieces of evergreen trees and debris were floating ashore on both sides of the lake the Rouse Simmons was presumed lost with all souls on board. 

On the 6th of December, 1912 (13 days after the last sighting of the Rouse Simmons) the Milwaukee Sentinel reported that a Capt. William Baxter of the Kersarge heard some vessel sounding its bell just before sighting the Milwaukee light.  Many sailors believe those to be what are known as Phantom Bells.  Since bells are usually rung upon the death of a human being and many sailors believe a ship has a soul of its own, it is believed that one will hear phantom bells to announce that a ship has been lost.  Many lake sailors believed it to be the phantom bells rung for the Rouse Simmons.  It is also believed that a ship will scream out after it is lost at sea and many believe this sound to be caused by the air escaping from the hold or cabin of the ship as it is crushed by the pressure of the heavy water.

For decades, usually after a storm strong enough to stir up the lake bottom,  trees  presumed from the Rouse Simmons, would wash up on the  shores of Lake Michigan.  In the early years the trees would show up as fresh as the day they were cut due to being preserved by the frigid Lake Michigan waters.   People would gather them up and decorate them for Christmas.  In much later years the trees would turn up as skeletons but the trees would be cut into thin slices which would then be decorated as ornaments.  It was said that Captain Santa was still delivering his load of Christmas Trees even in death.

Ludington, MI lighthouse near where Christmas trees washed ashore


Miraculously, in 1924, a burgundy wallet wrapped in oilskin washed ashore near Two Rivers, Wisconsin and was found by a fisherman and a lighthouse keeper.  The wallet belonged to Captain Schuenemann and was very well preserved after being submerged for 12 years.  It had Captain Schuenemann’s personal information and newspaper clippings that he kept about his Christmas Tree exploits.  The wallet was turned over to Captain Schuenemann’s family and the family still treasures it to this day.  Coincidentally the name of the fisherman’s ship was “Reindeer”.

A friend of mine, named Ellen Rohr, recounted a story that she had heard from her great uncle.   Her great uncle was born in 1909, just 3 years before the Rouse Simmons was lost.  He grew up near the area and would go down to the Point Beach Lighthouse to pick choke cherries from the trees near there.  He told Ellen that people would go down to the Lakeshore usually on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning just before dawn to try to catch a glimpse of the ghost ship.    It was described as an old ship with tattered sails that would just bob in the waves.  Someone would see it and it would just disappear.  He said that many times people would claim to see a person waving a lighted lantern back and forth on deck.    She also stated that the wheel from the ship was found in 1999 about 1 mile north of where the shipwreck was discovered which lends itself to the fact that they may have lost the wheel before the ship sank and were unable to steer the craft through the storm.    The wheel itself, along with other artifacts, are located in the Rogers Street Fishing Village
and the anchor is at the entrance of the Milwaukee Yacht Club.

Starting in 2000, the U.S. Coast Guard carries on the tradition of the Schuenemann family with a yearly re-enactment with an early December pilgrimage from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to Navy Pier in Chicago.   The duties are usually carried out by the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw but this year the Coast Guard Cutter Adler from Duluth Minnesota filled in because the Mackinaw was undergoing repairs.  The Adler docked at Navy Pier on December 2, 2011 with 1,000 Christmas trees to distribute to Chicago’s less privileged families.  The trees were paid for by the Chicago Christmas Ship Committee The journey started in Saux St. Marie Michigan and various volunteer groups help to unload the trees at Navy Pier in Chicago including kids from Goodwin Elementary school which just happens to be my alma mater. 

Barbara Schuenemann passed away in 1933 and was buried at Acacia Cemetery on Irving Park Road in Chicago.  Hermann is listed on her stone but his body was never discovered.   Two of their daughters, Elsie Roberts and Hazel Groneman are also buried in the plot although their graves are unmarked.  The Schuenemann stone has a single evergreen tree in the center and people claim that they can sometimes smell freshly cut Christmas Trees when visiting the gravesite.  I had the opportunity to visit the site recently and as I walked toward the site I did catch a smell of freshly cut evergreen.  My heart jumped a little but on closer inspection I discovered a “blanket” of evergreen branches that were laid upwind on top of a grave that was about 30 feet away and was able to trace the smell to that gravesite.  But that is alright by me.  It is still a fitting tribute to have the area smell like freshly cut evergreens whether the smell is from this world or not.

Schuenemann grave marker at Acacia Cemetery, Chicago, IL