Saturday, November 22, 2014


Chicago's Year Without the Christmas Trees

While the holidays are usually a time of cheer and happiness, the people of Chicago learned of a Christmas-related tragedy on November 22, 1912 when the Rouse Simmons -- the famed "Christmas Tree Ship" -- went down in a storm on Lake Michigan. The tragedy changed the face of the holidays for the people of Chicago in an unexpected way. 

For many years, one of the great traditions of Chicago was the arrival of the famous "Christmas Tree Ship." Starting in 1887, Captain Herman Schuenemann and his brother, August, began returning with bundles of their fragrant cargo. Schuenemann sold Christmas trees and hand-made wreaths from his mooring on the Chicago River near the Clark Street Bridge. 

The tallest trees drawn from the shipment were presented to the grateful owners of downtown theaters and in return, the brothers received complimentary season passes. The rest were sold to celebrating citizens, many of whom spoke of their fond memories of the Schuenemanns and the Rouse Simmons, their "Christmas Tree Ship" for generations. By 1912, Chicagoans anxiously looked forward to the ship's arrival and anticipated searching for the perfect tree among the wares, which ranged in price from seventy-five cents to a dollar. Herman affixed a hand-painted sign to the dock each year, reminding his customers that he had ventured into the deep snows of the Upper Peninsula to hand-pick just the right trees for his fine friends back in Chicago.

Herman Schuenemann, the master of the Rouse Simmons, his wife, and three young daughters lived in a small apartment at 1638 North Clark Street, just a little over a mile north of the river. His oldest daughter, Elsie, was devoted to her father and had recently become active in the family's seasonal business. 

It was a business that was not without risk. The month of November, when the shipment of trees had to be sailed across the Great Lakes, was a particularly treacherous one for Lake Michigan. High winds and deadly gales had sent many ships to the bottom of Lake Michigan and in 1898, Captain Schuenemann's brother, August, went down with all hands while manning the schooner S. Thal in the waters off north suburban Glencoe. 

But his brother's death, and the threat of more dangerous weather, failed to deter Herman Schuenemann. He knew the Rouse Simmons was a sturdy ship. Built in 1868, the wooden schooner was fitted with three masts and had been intended for use in the lumber industry. Its large hold made it perfect for storing hundreds of Christmas trees each season.

On November 22, 1912, Captain Schuenemann, with a crew and passenger list of 16 and between 27,000 and 50,000 trees tied and bundled below decks, set sail from Manistique, Mich., bound for Chicago. The skies were overcast and high winds were predicted but the Rouse Simmons headed straight into the open waters of the lake. When a storm broke, the wooden ship was hopelessly trapped, far from shore. The ship foundered in the rough water and eventually, the sails blew out and the ice-covered masts collapsed. A short time later, the Rouse Simmons disappeared. 

Captain Herman Schuenemann was never heard from again, although many of his trees were found washed ashore in Wisconsin a few days after the ship vanished. The people of Chicago, and the family of Captain Schuenemann, were grief-stricken and stunned. 

Newspaper reporters found Elsie Schuenemann and her mother weaving Christmas garlands that came from the splintered trees recovered by Wisconsin residents on the lake's shoreline. Facing destitution, they sold the garlands to the public. Every dollar the family possessed had been tied up in the Rouse Simmons and its ill-fated cargo. The Chicago Inter-Ocean newspaper, with help from the Lake Seaman's Union, organized an emergency relief fund for the family. 

Elsie told the newspaper reporters, "I am going to attempt to carry on father's Christmas tree business. I will get friends to help me and send trees by rail to Chicago and sell them from the foot of Clark Street. Ever since I was a little girl, Papa has sold them there, and lots and lots of people never think of going anywhere else for their trees."

As a sales location for the trees, W.C. Holmes Shipping, for whom Schuenemann had operated a vessel in his younger days, offered the family the use of a schooner, the Oneida. It was moored at the Clark Street Bridge where the Rouse Simmons had rested for years and after the Rouse Simmons disaster, the new ship was filled with trees each year and the cherished Christmas tradition was unbroken.

Meanwhile, in 1912, the search for clues and survivors from the Rouse Simmons continued. The U.S. Treasury Department offered the use of one of their cutters to search the small islands of Lake Michigan for any sign of the small ship. The hopes and prayers of the families of the crew and passengers went with the cutter, but those hopes quickly faded. 

No sign of the men were found, but two bottle messages were reportedly recovered. The first was found on a beach at Sheboygan, Wisconsin, on December 13, 1912. It read, "Friday. Everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. Sea washed over our deck load Tuesday. During the night, the small boat washed over. Ingvald and Steve fell overboard on Thursday. God help us. Herman Schuenemann." Ingvald Newhouse was a deck hand taken on board just before sailing and Stephen Nelson was the first mate and son of Captain Charles Nelson, who was also lost. 

The second bottle note, this one written by Captain Nelson, was found years later, in 1927. It read, "These lines were written at 10:30 p.m. Schooner R.S. ready to go down about 20 miles southeast of Two Rivers Point, between 15 and 20 miles off shore. All hands lashed to one line. Goodbye."

From time to time, other curious artifacts, including a human skull believed to have come from the "Christmas Tree Ship," were washed up along beaches or snagged in fishermen's nets. On April 23, 1924, Captain Schuenemann's wallet, containing business cards and newspapers clippings, was recovered at Two Rivers Point. But the final location of the Rouse Simmons remained a mystery until October 1971. A diver named G. Kent Bellrichard of Milwaukee found the remarkably preserved wreck under 180 feet of water off the coast of Two Rivers. 

As to the fate of the rest of the Schuenemann family, Elsie made good on her promise to continue the tradition of the "Christmas Tree Ship." They maintained the tree lot at the Clark Street Bridge every holiday season until 1933, bringing happiness to thousands of Chicago families every year.

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