Written by Captain Killjoy.





Chicago, – Nov. 29.–The schooner Rouse Simmons, laden with Christmas greens, long over-due here, is safe at Bailey’s Point, 175 miles north of here, on her way to Chicago.

If it sounds to good to be true it probably is.



Every year for the last couple decades, the story of the Christmas Tree Ship is told, and retold, embellished, and told again.  Like most everything attached to the Christmas holidays, the story is shaped in such a way as to increase the bottom line of merchants.  What better than a story, somewhat true, of a merchant eking out a hard scrabble existence?  That, and the fact that this captain, Hermann Schuenemann, became known along the Lake Michigan lake front and the Chicago area as Captain Santa, and alternatively Captain Christmas.  Appellations that he loved, for he was by all accounts a kind hearted individual.  No one that wanted a Christmas tree was turned away because they couldn’t afford one, not on Captain Santa’s watch.

Here is a very well written, heart warming, and yet fact laced story of the Captain, and his boat written by Glenn V. Longacre.  Mr. Longacre spent a great amount of time researching the story and it shows.  I rely heavily on his work to present this jaded version.  Jaded?

Yes, because as mentioned above, the story has grown into a story of love, faith and hope; centered around the traditions of Christmas celebrations of the large German immigrant community within the Iron Triangle which boundaries were Milwaukee, Wisconsin, St. Louis Missouri, and Cincinnati Ohio.  Drawing a straight lines through those cities on a map and encompassed within those boundaries the largest single group of individuals was comprised of people that recently emigrated to the USA from Germany.  Captain Schuenemann’s wife was born in Germany and traveled to the USA; to the city of Chicago.  On April 9, 1891, he married German-born Barbara Schindel; and they happily ever after.  The end.  Wait a tick.

Scheunemann himself was born in Wisconsin albeit outside of the Iron Triangle, shame, shame.  But in a city that was predominately a German Community.   This from the above referenced writings of Longacre.

The 1870 census reveals that Wisconsin native Schuenemann was born about 1865, into the middle of a growing family of six children in the predominantly German community of Ahnapee, now present-day Algoma, on the shores of Lake Michigan. His oldest brother, August, born in 1853, was the first of the children to make his living on the lake. Herman, however, soon followed in his brother’s footsteps.

Longacre, notes that shortly after the birth of the erstwhile Schuenemann, wind powered vessels sailing the great lakes was at or very near it’s zenith.  Herman’s brother August is the first in the family to take up the vocation, and because of this Herman, also enters the profession that will eventually make him a legendary figure in the annals of shipping and Christmas.   That whole erstwhile thing in a nutshell.

Fast forward to 1868 and the city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin where the ship building industry has turned out yet another windjammer; the Rouse Simmons.   She’s a sleek, neatly built, triple master of 124 ft. long and  27 1/2 feet wide.  (37.8 X 8.38 meters respectively) her cargo hold is 10 ft deep (abt. 3 meters) and she weighs 244 gross tons.  Below are period pictures of the boat.

Rouse Simmons

Here is a model of the Rouse Simmons, I don’t know the name of the builder but it’s nicely done, and what the heck it’s in color.Discovery World 11 24

This is how the newly minted schooner would have looked like.  But by the time she becomes the Christmas Ship of Old, the days of windjammer sailing the lakes are numbered, and the days of the Rouse Simmons and her intrepid crew are numbered fewer.  More about that later.

The Rouse Simmons was built to carry iron ore, coal, lumber, and other such bulk cargo, although lumber is her mainstay cargo.  She was built as a working boat and that’s all she ever really was, a working boat.  No fancy appointments, no visiting VIP quarters.  Captain and crew and cargo.  In the 44 years prior to her demise she has seen her fair share of heavy weather, and had her share of scraping of the docks.  By 1910 she’s not the spry young spring chicken rather, her age is showing and she is in disrepair.  However, the good captain Schuenemann, and his partner, Capt. Christian Nelson, both purchase a 1/8 interest in her; the remainder is owned by a third partner  Mannes J. Bonner of St. James, Michigan.

Schuenemann, besides being a competent lake captain, is also a businessman of sorts.  According to the linked story one of his business ventures included the operation of a saloon.  It’s safe to say that being kind hearted was somewhat of a drawback in the cutthroat business world.  This is one guy that wouldn’t make it as an investment banker working for J.P. Morgan.  In the fish or cut bait world he would be relegate to sharpening his knife often, and so his saloon business was not a going concern.

As a small businessman, Schuenemann not only made his living on the lake, but he also owned businesses that in 1906 included a saloon. In these business endeavors, Schuenemann did not always meet with success, and on January 4, 1907, he petitioned for bankruptcy in the U.S. District Court in Chicago. Listed as a saloon keeper, Schuenemann’s debts to his creditors amounted to over $1,300, which he was unable to satisfy. This financial setback, however, does not appear to have interfered with his other role as a lake captain.

His money troubles never seem to fully evaporate but Captain Santa, always has a plan.  It’s not to say by any means that he’s a business failure.  After all there is the successful seasonal Christmas tree and greens business that he, and his brother established  and made work for several years.    Then on November 9-10, 1898 (Nov. 9-10-11 are infamous for the sheer number of killer lake storms) tragedy first strikes the Schuenemann’s Christmas concerns.  While sailing a load of Christmas trees back home to Chicago, August Schuenemann, aboard the schooner S. Thal is lost in a killer storm.  The strong storm causes the S. Thal to break up and all hands are lost.  Had it not been for the recent birth of his twin daughters Hazel, and Pearl the month before, Captain Santa would have most likely been aboard that vessel.

The Schuenemann’s were not the only lake captains peddling Christmas wares.  According to Longacre, a rough estimate places the number of boats involved in the trade may have been as high as a couple of dozen.  There are in fact photographs of other boats docked near the Rouse Simmons also selling trees, and servicing the needs of the immigrant populace.  The Rouse Simmons and Captain Santa, is the most famous.  The boat was docked near the Clark Street bridge, and it’s from here that he marketed his wares that also included wreaths, and other holiday decorations, which were made by his wife and daughters. The Simmons was festooned from stem to stern with a string or two of colorful electric Christmas tree lights, and a sign boasted “Christmas Tree Ship: My Prices are the Lowest”.  By cutting out the middleman Schuenemann was able to make good on his boast and as mentioned before he was known to have given trees away to the needy families.  His trees were priced from $0.50–$0.75 cents to a dollar.  He is said to have also placed signage to remind his customers that he would return next year with another bounty of trees.

Two Xmas ships

Compare this image to the one below, looks like the later of the two images here.  The decking is different and the window and port hole appear to be later additions.

On Friday November 22, 1912, (period newspaper accounts give the date of 21, November)  the crew of the Rouse Simmons, singled the lines and prepared to sail down bound for Chicago.  There is considerable disagreement of the number of people aboard the the boat but the Marine Review Vol 42 for the year 1912 puts the number at 16.  This from the Marine Review–the picture also taken from that source.

Schooner Rouse Simmons

Were it not for the fate that befell the little schooner, Rouse Simmons, the loss of lives on the great lakes during 1912 would have been only seventeen. As it is, it was thirty-three. Practically one-half of those who lost their lives during the season were in the little schooner. She was caught in the gale raging on Lake Michigan on Dec. 4, and never reached port. The revenue cutter Tuscarora searched for her for days but found no trace of her. She carried a cargo of Christmas trees and these are now, owing to the mild weather and absence of ice, beginning to drift ashore. The Simmons was in command of Capt. Henry (sic) Schueneman and carried a crew, all told, of sixteen men.   Simmons from Marine Review..jpgThe Rouse Simmons is looking a little worse for the wear here.

Stories abound regarding the last voyage though most are probably apocryphal.  One newspaper states that before the boat even left Chicago upbound for Manistique, Michigan; rats were reported seen deserting the boat.  I’ve included here one such account.


Three Sailors


Seventeen Men Who Were Lost When Schooner Rouse Simmons Went Down Had Forebodings of Death — Rats Left the Ship While in Port.

Chicago, Dec. 5.– How the rats deserted the Christmas tree ship, Rouse Simmons, now given up as lost in Lake Michigan with seventeen men before she weighed anchor from her last port, and how her crew were weigh down by superstitious forebodings of death, was told today by one Hoganson, the only member believed to have escaped.

He is alive because he quit his post before the schooner left port. The schooner was due here November 20th. The ship was given up for lost when Captain Ewald, in charge of Pentwater lifesaving station, found wreckage consisting of a “booby” hatch and fragments of Christmas trees along the beach. The names of the men of the ship follow: Capt. Frank (sic) Schuenemann (Herman) Captain Nelson’s partner in the Christmas tree venture; Alex Johnson, first mate; Edward Minogue, Frank Sobata, Gerroge Watson, Ray Davis, Conrad Griffin, George Quinn, Edward Murphy, John Morwauski, “Stump” Morris, Greeley Peterson, Frank Faul, Edward Hogan, and Phillip Bauswein sailors.

(no mention of Mrs. Nelson wife of Capt. Nelson.)

“It was the rats that gave me my first ‘hunch’ that trouble was ahead.” said Hoganson today, telling why he left the ship just before it cleared.

“The rats had deserted the ship while it lay in the Chicago harbor. And all the way across the lake as we sailed for our cargo the saying had been ringing in my ears: ‘The rats always desert a sinking ship’

Our trip over was in as fair weather as any one could wish to see, just like midsummer. When we had filled the hold with Christmas trees, we were ordered to pile up a deckload of the saplings. The load grew and grew and still they had us pilling up more and more trees on deck.

“Then I quit. Captain Schueneman the owner of the cargo, told me I wold get no money unless I stuck for the cruise, but I had some money and so I took a train for Chicago. Here I am—and the others—–”

Captain Neilsen (sic) was worried about the ship before he left Chicago, according to Hoganson. When the rats left the Rouse Simmons, the Captain told Capt. George Demar of the Chicago harbor police that he feared it was a bad omen. The old schooner never carried such a thing as a life-boat, Hoganson said.

“Then I quit. Captain Schueneman the owner of the cargo, told me I wold get no money unless I stuck for the cruise, but I had some money and so I took a train for Chicago. Here I am—and the others—–”

Captain Neilsen (sic) was worried about the ship before he left Chicago, according to Hoganson. When the rats left the Rouse Simmons, the Captain told Capt. George Demar of the Chicago harbor police that he feared it was a bad omen. The old schooner never carried such a thing as a life-boat, Hoganson said.

The actual number of trees shipped varies widely but a reasonable estimate is between 3000-5000 a number consistent with accounts of the boats sinking.  I’ve seen other authors emphatically state 27,000–50,000.  trees aboard the boat, not likely given the small size of the boat.  Mr. Hoganson’s account gives the names of the men aboard the boat and it differs greatly from another account.  Also there are stories that tell of a group of lumberjacks hitching a ride back home aboard the unlucky schooner.  (probably apocryphal).  There simply wasn’t any room for more that the scant crew and trees.

Eyewitness accounts describe the boat as looking like a floating forest since the deck was festooned with so many saplings.   Hoganson’s retelling of the final days of the Rouse Simmons, if true, means that the boat was severely over loaded.  Besides his preoccupation with the fickle rat population, (probably apocryphal) he gives the overloaded condition of the boat as his second reason for getting off the doomed ship.  Can his account be trusted?  Well, maybe, maybe not; he gives the names of men aboard the boat on it’s fatal journey.  Those names don’t jibe with two of the names given in the note found in a bottle that washed up onshore and was found soon after the sinking.  The authenticity of the note has never been seriously questioned.   (Though given the fact that it seems to have been a cruel prank in those days for some wag to forge such a note; more about that in another post)

A bottled message was found on a beach several weeks later; it read, “Friday. Everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. Sea washed over our deck load. During the night, the small boat washed over. Ingvald (a deck hand) and Steve (first mate) fell overboard on Thursday. God help us. Herman Schuenemann.

There is a newspaper account in which the names of Ingvald Nyhous, and Steve E. Nelson, is given as being aboard the Christmas tree ship.  That being the case I am tempted to consider this reporting as the more accurate of the bunch:




Hope for Crew of Ten is Abandoned.


Schooner Rouse Simmons, Laden With Christmas Trees, Believed to Have Gone Down With All on Board.

Chicago, Dec. 5.– Hope for the safety of the three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons and her crew of ten men was practically abandoned in marine circles when word reached Chicago that numerous Christmas trees, which made up the cargo of the Rouse Simmons, and bits of unmarked wreckage had drifted ashore near Pentwater, Mich.

The vessel was last reported off Kewaunee at 2:00 p.m. a week ago last Saturday, running south under full sail and flying distress signals from the foremast.

Life Savers Fight Snowstorm.

A life-saving crew from the Two Rivers station, 24 miles south of Kewaunee, immediately put out and patrolled the coast a distance of 18 miles, eight miles off shore. The crew fought its way in a blinding snow storm over the probable course of the ill-fated schooner but found no trace of her.

Renewed efforts to learn the fate of the missing boat and her crew were commenced Wednesday, when the United States Revenue cutter Tuscarora, Captain Berry, left Milwaukee harbor on request of T. A. Hanson, secretary of the Chicago Lake Seamen’s union. A wireless message from Captain Berry last night brought no hope to relatives and friends of the officers and crew. Nothing had been found.

Names of Missing.

Those missing and known to be on the Rouse Simmons when she sailed from Thompson’s pier, near Manistique, Mich., November 21, are:

Capt. Charles Nelson, skipper and part owner.

Capt. Herman Scheunemann, owner of cargo.

Steve E. Nelson, mate.

Charles Nelton, sailor.

Gilbert Svenson, sailor.

Frank Carlson, sailor.

Albert Lykstad, cook.

Ingvald Nyhous, sailor.

William Oberg, Lumber shover.

Sven Inglehart, lumber shover.

All from Chicago.

The Rouse Simmons has been chartered annually for a

number of years by Captain Scheunemann for a post season trip to the northern peninsula of Michigan for Christmas trees and holiday greens. She left Chicago about ten weeks ago with a crew of 13.  (this last bit is suspect)

There’s some back ground information lets get to the legend.

The Christmas Tree ship departs from Chicago in early November 1912.  Aboard the boat is Captain Santa, as the beloved Captain Herman Scheuenman has come to be known.  years later in 1924 when a fisherman hauls in his nets there is a little something extra therein.  Captain Scheuenman wallet protected from the water by oilskins is found.  Inside are newspaper clippings proclaiming him as Captain Santa.  He loved it.  Along with him for the trip is his partner Captain Christian Nelson, and his wife.  The boat is bound for Manistique Michigan, and the docks at nearby Thompson.

On Thursday or Friday the 20, 21st respectively the fully loaded Simmons departs from Thompson with its seasonal haul of Christmas trees and greens.  Stories tell that the good Captain put most of the families fortune into this trip so as to gain the maximum return.  Like a gambler looking for that one big sure thing, Scheunemann is also looking for a big score with which to lift him our of his financial difficulties.  The aging old tub is dangerously overloaded with saplings and maybe carrying up to 16 total souls.  Even in good weather the boat would be laboring but now circumstances border on the catastrophic.  Storms have already lashed the lake, and it’s for good reason that November has earned it reputation as deadliest month.

During the overnight Thursday, the November Witch toys with the hapless boat and her crew.  According to his last words two crewmen, Ingvald Nyhous a deck hand, and the Mate Steve E. Nelson are washed overboard by a giant wave.  I guess the mate wasn’t lashed to the wheel.  Along with those two doomed sailors, the November Witch, takes the small yawl.  There’s no escape now, and the boat is leaking badly.  One eyewitness report states that the Rouse Simmons was riding low in the water, and her sails were tattered.  She was also flying a distress signal from her formast.  Realizing all hope is lost the Captain pens his farewell note and tosses it overboard.

The boat is spotted by  Captain Nelson Craite of the Kewaunee life saving station in Kewaunee Wisconsin.  He see the schooner  about 5 or 6 miles  miles out in the lake flying the US flag at half mast.  The universally accepted signal on the Great Lakes that the boat is badly in need of assistance. It’s now about 2:50 p.m. Saturday afternoon of the 23rd. Craite writes: I immediately took the Glasses, and made out that there was a distress signal. The schooner was between 5 and 6 miles E.S.E. and blowing a Gale from the N.W.

Craite attempts to mount a rescue, he tries to locate a gas tugboat however, the tug had left the station earlier in the day.  With time running out, it would be dark soon, Craite rings up the nearest life saving station for help.  It’s now 3:10 p.m. according to the stations logs.  He telephones the Station to the south at Two Rivers, on the other end of the phone is Capt. George E. Sogge.  Craite relates the information on the forlorn schooner, and that she is headed south.  When he hangs up the phone the Simmons has disappeared from sight, closed off by the blowing snow.

Upon receipt of the news Capt. Sogge orders his surfmen to launch the stations powerboat.  When the powerboat reaches the approximate position where the schooner should be they find no trace of her.  Darkness, and heavy snow coupled with writhing seas make it near impossible to find her.  Reluctantly they return back to base empty-handed.

In the days there after a booby hatch is found on shore along with hundreds of Christmas trees and other assorted wreckage.  Even in death Capt. Santa was still giving away free Christmas trees.  For years after the story goes that fishermen had their nets fouled with trees in that part of the lake.

Das Boot

The cargo hold still contains the remains of Christmas trees.

Diver and tree

Bad news on the door step

There’s more to the story but that’s another post.




Another Cargo Will Be Secured at Once and Brought Across Michigan for Holiday Market.

Special to Plain Dealer

CHICAGO, took Ill., Dec. 9.—Lake Michigan took Captain Herman Schuenneman’s life. Lake Michigan must make reparation to Herman Schuenneman’s family—at least such paltry reparation as can be measured in dollars and cents in the face of bereavement that is theirs.

For when Captain Schuenemann went to the bottom of the lake with the Christmas tree ship, the Rouse Simmons, he took with him practically all the family’s fortune, invested as it was in the spruce saplings that were to have brought a golden harvest. Elsie Schuenemann, the captain’s 17-year-old daughter, is the new skipper of the family, and yesterday she told of her plans to make the wintry lake and the snowbound forests of Michigan give back at least the financial part of what they lost when the Rouse Simmons went down in the ante-Thanksgiving gale. “We are going to get another boat,” said Miss Schuenemann. “We must get it right away, because the time for gathering and marketing Christmas trees and greens isn’t long now. And when we have chartered it we are going back to Michigan and get an even bigger cargo of spruce and balsam saplings than my father loaded onto the Rouse Simmons. “I am a sailor. I have made many a voyage with my father and it may be that I shall take a personal command of the new boat. Possibly I will be unable to leave my mother and the other children, but I am going after the trees myself, if I can, and if I cannot I shall be represented by an agent whom I can trust.”

This was the only ray of cheer or hope that penetrated the Schuenemann home at 1838 north Clark street yesterday.