100 Years Ago Today

A History Of Events And Happenings From Exactly One Hundred Years Ago

The Sinking Of The Christmas Tree Ship

The ROUSE SIMMONS was a three-masted schooner built in Milwaukee in 1868. It started out as part of a fleet of ships transporting lumber of the Great Lakes along the shores of Michigan in the later part of the 19th century. In 1910 Herman Schuenemann bought an interest in the ship. The Schuenemann had been trading Christmas trees in Chicago since around the start of the 20th century. Unlike other Christmas tree dealers, they sold directly to Chicago residents at dockside. By cutting out the middleman in this way the trees could be sold cheaply. They used the slogan “Christmas Tree Ship: My Prices are the Lowest” and the ROUSE SIMMONS would be decked out with electric Christmas lights and a tree atop the main mast. Herman Schuenemann, affectionately known as “Captain Santa”, gave away some of the trees to needy families.

Captain Herman “Christmas Tree” Scheunemann, center, and associates docked at the Clark Street Bridge, early 1900s.

On November 21, 1912 the ROUSE SIMMONS started out loaded with 5,500 Christmas trees from Thompson Harbor near Manistique, Michigan to make a week-long journey to Chicago, Illinois. November weather is traditionally bad on the Great Lakes and the ship had trees crammed into every possible corner, far above the weight recommendations, especially in the bad winter weather. During the night storms hit the ROUSE SIMMONS hard. They lost 2 sailors, many bundled trees, and a small boat. Ice formed on the sodden trees and winds battered the hull.On November 23, 1912 a Life Saving Station spotted the ROUSE SIMMONS low in the water with tattered sails, flying its flag at half mast to signal that it was in distress. Logs from the station show that a surfman spotted the Simmons at 2:50pm. The ROUSE SIMMONS was not seen again. A message in a bottle corked using a small piece of cut pine tree was found. The message read:

“Friday … everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat washed overboard. Leaking bad. Invald and Steve lost too. God help us.”

The ROUSE SIMMONS, the “Christmas Tree Ship,” docked along the Chicago River laden with Christmas trees – 1909

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