There are special memories we treasure and renew each Christmas season, no matter what! It seems that to honor this most treasured holiday is in our soul, for the birth of Baby Jesus brought treasured Joy and Love into our world. As we celebrate this joyous holiday, we enjoy making or buying special gifts for our loved ones, baking delicious treats, and beautifully decorating our homes.
But don’t forget the seasonal aromas of fresh-cut evergreens! Therein lies a favorite memory for many in going out to get a Christmas tree from a tree farm, meandering between the rows to find the right one as fresh snowflakes flutter down, or perhaps simply picking out a favorite from among pre-cut trees on a seasonal lot, the latter option often being pretty much all that’s available to our city friends.
Decorating the family Christmas tree brings such excitement to a child! Their eyes sparkle, reflecting the lights and tinsel that shine and shimmer, while the fancy decorations bring special memories to mind from year to year. The first Christmas after Ed and I were married, we cut down a small tree in the woods to decorate in our trailer; otherwise, faux trees were usually the norm as our kids grew up to save the disposable expense every year. Now, I simply set up the 2-foot ceramic tree made for my mother-in-law decades ago, which she graciously gifted to me before her passing.
Until this research, I never knew that the evergreen tree is said to represent strength, perhaps strength to resist temptations or to remain strong in the harshest of times. We often consider it a symbol of our Christian faith, a reminder of Christ’s birth and everlasting life, but it has also been an ancient symbol of wisdom and longevity. President John F. Kennedy even referred to the durable evergreen as a symbol of character by saying, “Only in winter can you tell which trees are truly green. Only when the winds of adversity blow can you tell whether an individual or a country has courage and steadfastness.” (The Historic Christmas Tree Ship, pg.276)
It seems Christmas trees became popular thanks to England’s Queen Victoria in the mid-19th century. Yet, it was in 16th century Germany where many believe the tradition began of setting up an evergreen in the house for Christmas. Martin Luther, credited with starting the Protestant Reformation in 1517, is thought to have begun putting lit candles onto his family’s tree which were held in place by wires. This bright tradition was based on his seeing stars twinkling amongst the evergreens as he walked outdoors mulling over a sermon. The Germans also added edible decorations to the branches, like aromatic gingerbread. German glassmakers began creating unique glass tree ornaments, a tradition carried forward through the centuries. In 1605, an unknown German left a written record of their decorations: "At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold foil, sweets, etc." As time went on, figurines of Baby Jesus were put at the top of the tree. Later, an angel was often displayed as a topper to remind us of the one who had first informed the shepherds about Baby Jesus’ birth, or a star was gently set on the top branch in honor of the bright star which led the Wise Men to the young child.
In England, Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert of Germany, apparently set up and decorated their first family Christmas tree in 1841 inside Windsor Castle. Young and beloved by everyone, whatever Queen Victoria wore or did often became the latest fad, like wearing the first white wedding gown for her marriage in February 1840. Thus, she and her husband are credited with starting the very popular Christmas tree tradition. An 1848 drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle” in the Illustrated London News eventually found its way to America, republished in “ Godey's Lady's Book ” at Philadelphia in December 1850. However, historical curators have established it was actually Queen Charlotte, the wife of King George III, who began the British tradition of setting up Christmas trees with “the first known English tree at the Queen’s Lodge, Windsor in December 1800.” Simply put, Queen Charlotte didn’t have the effervescent media giving profuse public praise to her every move that we would remember her effort.
Lit candles on Christmas trees created a beautiful illuminating star effect. Unfortunately, they were also the cause of many fires. What a promising change when inventor Thomas Edison hung up his safer electric lights in his office in 1880. Two years later his colleague, Edward Johnson, strung up red, white and blue bulbs for use on his tree at home. By 1890, an Edison Company brochure offered Christmas tree lighting services. Only a few years later, President Grover Cleveland became the first president to decorate the White House Christmas tree with lights in 1895. But, not until 1923, did President Calvin Coolidge set up the first National Christmas Tree on the White House front lawn.
The popularity of Christmas trees make them highly desirable wherever you live. Along with the beauty of candles or lightbulbs, various types of homemade decorations have been strung on the tree, including popcorn, cranberries, and fancy ornaments from paper to glass. To serve their many customers, trees were brought to the cities by traditional means of delivery via teamsters with horse-drawn wagons and the popular steam locomotive. Of especial interest among certain waiting city clientele, though, were the roughly 60 Christmas tree schooners which plied Lake Michigan between 1868 and 1914. They were among the nearly 2000 or so beautiful three-masted schooners carrying cargo like tractor trailers on today’s highways. Sailing south from northern Lake Michigan with loads of evergreens in late November, these hardy mariners risked their lives despite stormy weather to bring great joy to their customers. Far from summer’s calm, late season sailing often became a ride on roiling and dangerous waters described as “hellish death traps [in] violent hurricane-force storms.”
Many of us readily recall Gordon Lightfoot’s song, “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald”, a haunting tale of loss on Lake Superior on November 10, 1975 – “…The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down, of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee'. The lake, it is said, never gives up her dead, when the gales of November come early…” This last phrase was oft quoted by long-forgotten mariners on the Great Lakes who knew stormy tragedy; and, I’m sure, are among the fears of those who ply the late-season waters even now. Yet, not many of us today know about the tragic loss of the three-masted schooner, “Rouse Simmons”, the famed and fabled Christmas Tree Ship.
Born after the American Civil War’s conclusion in 1865, Capt. Herman Schuenemann, the son of German immigrants, knew Lake Michigan like the back of his hand. He’d been sailing since his youth. He knew how storms could blow up in an instant, causing havoc with sailing vessels, just as he knew about storms which took ships down to their dark and bitter-cold watery graves. After all, he lost his brother, August, in the severe gale of November 9-10, 1898. His ship, “the two-masted S. Thal”, also held Christmas trees bound for Chicago when she sank in a violent storm.
Loyal to the good people of Chicago, Capt. Herman Schuenemann faithfully brought in his schooner loaded with Christmas trees every year. While not the only Christmas tree ship on the Great Lakes, the good captain with his evergreen cargo was extremely popular at the Clark Street Dock of Chicago. The annual arrival of Capt. Santa was made more popular by the reciprocal love of his many friends and neighbors. He couldn’t think of disappointing the faithful who hoped to buy his trees for their homes, nor the poor families, orphanages, and churches which welcomed his free gift of a tree. It simply gave him great pleasure to sail into the Chicago harbor with his cargo of evergreen joy.
Yet, some would later claim Schuenemann had overloaded his schooner that year, making her top heavy. At least one sailor, possibly several, refused to get on board when it was claimed rats were seen deserting while she was docked. Sailors can be a superstitious lot… still, it’s long been known by old sea hands that if rats desert a ship, they know something’s amiss in what the inexperienced or unconcerned observer may overlook.
Even so, Capt. Schuenemann set sail on a nearly 300-mile journey from Thompson’s Pier at Manistique, Michigan the week before Thanksgiving… November 22, 1912, a Friday, another bad omen. To the old mariners, you never set sail on a Friday… just past midnight into Saturday, but never on Friday. Knowing a storm was brewin’, Schuenemann wanted to get ahead of it, ignoring advice from friends in the Northwoods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. “The people of Chicago have to have their trees for Christmas.” (See film clip of Classicsailboats.org, “Herman Schuenemann, Captain Santa”)
In the captain’s defense, though, even the official weather forecast on the day he sailed was not one that would have given rise to grave concern. “Washington, D.C., November 22, 1912 – For Wisconsin: Local rains or snow Saturday; colder at night; variable winds becoming northwest and brisk; Sunday fair. For Upper Michigan: Local snow or rains Saturday; variable winds, becoming northwest and west and brisk; Sunday fair. This would not be the kind of weather which a recreational yachtsman would relish, but it was hardly cause to stop the merchantmen.” (“Anchor News”, publication of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, January/February 1990, by Fred Neuschel; p. 87, Pennington.)
And so, undeterred, Schuenemann sailed out into the lake with his cargo of roughly 5000 trees… until the 50-60+ mph winds caught up with him. The gale-force winds laden with snow and ice took their toll on the hardy old ship built 44 years earlier. She was seen by a steamer about 2 p.m. on November 23, 1912, the car ferry “Ann Arbor No.5.” Noted to be riding low and listing badly, the captain of “Ann Arbor No.5” later claimed the “Simmons” was not running distress signals. He didn’t attempt to get closer to offer aid thinking she could yet make it safely to shore, later taking much blame for his decision.
Less than two hours after that siting, however, the U.S. Lifesaving Station had received notice and sent a rescue motorboat out from Two-Rivers, Wisconsin during the fierce storm to find the “Simmons”. The rescuers briefly saw her riding low and listing with distress flags flying, reporting that “…she was completely iced over, with most of her rigging and sails tattered or gone.” As they drew within an eighth of a mile of the schooner, a sudden snow squall overwhelmed and “blinded them. By the time the squall blew itself out, the ‘Rouse Simmons’ was gone… There was no Christmas Tree Ship, no Captain Santa, and no trees for many needy families’”. (p.135, Pennington, quoting U.S. Coast Guard Magazine, Dec 2000)
The late-season cold and stormy Great Lakes does not bring a pleasure sail. High winds angrily whip the lake into a mountainous frenzy, sending waves crashing over ship decks. The captain and his crew would fight the elements as their ship was tossed to and fro. Though all hands knew what to do in riding out such storms, surely they must have also realized they could go down at any moment. Realistically, there was only so much they could do. “Freezing temperatures would sheet rigging, sails and spars with heavy coats of ice. The accumulating weight of ice on the ship could ominously drag her deeper into the water, changing the center of gravity and making her prone to a sudden roll, from which she would never recover. Running any cargo on the old schooners was especially dangerous in the late season.” (“Went Missing II”, Frederick Stonehouse, Copyright 1984; pg.87, Pennington)
Actually, four ships with all hands sank in that horrendous storm of 1912 – “South Shore,” “Three Sisters,” “Two Brothers,” and the “Rouse Simmons.” Having lost sight of the “Simmons” despite an extensive search which risked their own lives, the unsuccessful Two Rivers Point men returned to the rescue house. When the “Rouse Simmons” failed to appear at any dock after ten days had passed, let alone her destination of Chicago’s Clark Street dock, it was determined that she must have gone to the bottom of Lake Michigan. She was believed to have sunk on November 23, 1912, possibly somewhere between the Two Rivers Point light and Kewaunee along the Wisconsin shore. Yet, there were numerous conflicting reports of sightings and stories of her final hours, including supposed sightings that she had braved the storm just fine, confusion on the number of crew aboard, and even confusion as to why she had gone down.
For years afterwards, evergreen trees and their remnants, including a few ship artifacts and skulls, were caught up in numerous fishing nets. Not until October 30, 1971, however, did a diver, Kent Bellrichard, accidentally discover the “Rouse Simmons.” While searching for another ship with his sonar, he dove down into the depths to investigate his target at the bottom. Quite sure he had found the “Rouse Simmons”, Bellrichard returned a week later for another dive. This time, with better lighting, he found the schooner’s name and hundreds of Christmas trees in her hold, some tucked deep inside with needles still intact. (pg. 232-237, Pennington)
Many more years passed before a fishing trawler netted a captain’s wheel in 1999. Determined to be from the “Rouse Simmons” by the year 1868 etched into the wheel’s metal, it was found in an area dubbed the ship graveyard for the many ships which have sunk there in storms over the numerous past decades. It is now believed the “Simmons” did not break apart from age as had been initially surmised. With her wheel found a mile and a half north of where the schooner rested on the bottom, and noting the specific type of damage to the wheel, there seemed to be sufficient evidence as to why the good Capt. Schuenemann was unable to bring her safely in to shore. Judging from the damage to the wheel, it most likely broke off and sank when the massive mizzenmast driver boom, which supported the ship’s main sails, broke loose. Without the vital wheel to guide the ship’s direction, and with her larger-than-usual load of evergreens, being heavily coated with ice, her sails in tatters from gale-force winds, riding low and listing badly, she all too quickly sank below the surface with a total loss of life in the worst storm folks of that day could remember ever hitting their great lake. (pg. 214-215, Pennington)
Despite the family’s loss, the captain’s wife, Barbara, was determined to continue her husband’s tradition. She and her daughters, Elsie, and twins Pearl and Hazel, began their annual trek in 1913 to the Northwoods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. They cut down and loaded a schooner full of Christmas trees for the good folks of Chicago, sending more by train. Over time, fewer schooners brought Christmas trees into ports as the safer railroads took over. But, for now, Elsie, age 20, the Captain’s oldest daughter, a very capable trained mariner under her father’s tutelage, sailed the lake on a new Christmas Tree Ship to bring home the greens. Bringing shiploads of trees and green boughs to Chicago’s Clark Street dock at least until 1925 before sending all evergreens by rail, Barbara and her three daughters continued to bring the joy of the season to town just as the good Captain Santa had done. The family was beloved for their kindness and generosity in many ways, but especially during their own time of deepest grief when they thought of others.
Yet, one little girl clearly remembered waiting for Capt. Scheunemann’s Christmas Tree Ship to sail into the Chicago harbor back in 1912. At age 5, Ruthie Erickson held her father’s hand as they waited at the dock for hours only to have her father finally say, “Ruthie, everybody is gone. It’s cold. The wind is blowing. We should go home now.” “But Daddy,” she replied, “it isn’t Christmas without a Christmas tree!” (p.316, Pennington)
Many years later, 83-year-old Ruth (Erickson) Flesvig attended a play in 1990 about the beloved Captain Santa and his Christmas Tree Ship. As the play concluded, her presence unknown to anyone, the real “little Ruthie” walked up onto the stage to say that she had been there at the docks waiting and waiting for the good captain and his trees. Portraying Capt. Scheunemann was Capt. Dave Truitt, former Chairman of the Christmas Ship Committee who, in conjunction with the U.S. Coast Guard, helped restore the annual Christmas Tree Ship event in 2000. (p.304-305, Pennington). With tears in his eyes and everyone else’s, Capt. Truitt took one of the Christmas trees on stage and handed it to Ruth. With these words, he spoke for Capt. Scheunemann by saying, “I couldn’t give you a Christmas tree in 1912 when you were five because of reasons you now know, but I give this tree to you today. Merry Christmas, Ruthie!” (p.316-137, Pennington)
Donating free trees to Chicago’s needy, the U.S. Coast Guard’s annual Christmas Tree Ship continues Capt. Schuenemann’s beloved tradition. Since 2000, the U. S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, an imposing icebreaker, arrives at Grand Avenue’s Navy Pier bearing a banner proclaiming her “Chicago’s Christmas Ship”. As large crowds gather, a memorial ceremony pays tribute to the “Rouse Simmons,” the lives lost when she sank, and others in the merchant marine trade who have lost their lives over the decades on Lake Michigan. Then, a large number of volunteers help deliver free Christmas trees to needy families throughout the city of Chicago in honor of Capt. Santa, their dear Capt. Herman Schuenemann.
As author Rochelle Pennington concluded, “Captain Herman Schuenemann touched the lives of people he would never know, and the volunteers of Chicago’s Christmas Ship are doing the same… dispelling some of the darkness in this ‘weary world’ that there may be rejoicing in The Season of Miracles… [For] the strength of humanity lies herein: in the willingness for each of us to leave the walls of our own hearts, and our own lives, and connect with the hearts and lives of others. A Babe born in Bethlehem told us so. The Life born in the hay had come to say, ‘Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, serve one another in love, and share. And do unto others, for it is more blessed to give than it is to receive.” (p.317, Pennington)
Merry Christmas and blessings to all!
Many thanks to a friend, Will Van Dorp, aka Tugster, for the research tip about Captain Santa and his ship of evergreens, the “Rouse Simmons.” Van Dorp traverses the Erie Canal and Great Lakes as an onboard lecturer for Blount Small Ship Cruises.
Legend of the Christmas Tree Ship (Northern Wilds Magazine, Dec-Jan 2011)
Brief film clip from “Herman Schuenemann, Captain Santa”, ClassicSailboats.org
Through interstate library loan:
“The Historic Christmas Tree Ship, A True Story of Faith, Hope and Love,” by Rochelle Pennington, 2004, published by Pathways Press.
“Lives and Legends of the Christmas Tree Ships” by Fred Neuschel.