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Captain Santa & the Christmas Tree Ship

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Not All Christmas Stories are Merry & Bright

Captain Herman Schuenemann

aka "Captain Santa"

Herman Schuenemann was the younger brother to August Schuenemann. Both moved to Chicago from Ahnapee, Wisconsin to better their lives. Both became ship captains that hauled cargo up and down Lake Michigan. Christmas Trees were particularly a hot item come season for the Schuenemann Brothers. These awesome looking Christmas Trees came from way north of Chicago, Illinois, so they weren't your common looking, mid-west style Christmas Tree everybody was use to.

Not only were the Schuenemann Brothers excellent sailors, they were suave businessmen as well. August soon got a reputation of being a fierce competitor on the waters of Lake Michigan, especially when it came time for the Christmas Trees.

However, one November night in 1898, August set sail for Chicago from northern territories. August was sailing the ship named the S. Thal, when he came down as far as Glencoe, Illinois that's when a terrible storm hit. The tremendous storm was too much for Captain August Schuenemann and the S. Thal. The 3 crew members, 3,500 Christmas Trees and August Schuenemann all went down with the ship.

Herman Schuenemann was suppose to be with his brother that year. However, the birth of his twin daughters caused him to stay behind to care for his developing family. He was devastated when he received the horrible news. He also realized he had a business to run without a partner.

Herman continued on best he could. He was able to live comfortably and with each passing year, Herman sailed further and further north. His profits were high, but so were his expenses. Herman was constantly thinking of ways of cutting out the "middlemen". To save money one year, Herman sailed so far north that he started buying trees from Native American Indians.

Herman eventually got the great idea of buying his own land and then hire a crew to cut down his own trees and then prepare them to be shipped to Chicago, Illinois. He even opened his own business where now he was able to sell his Christmas Trees right off his ship tied to the dock along Rush Street. He even decorated Rouse Simmons with Christmas decorations and lights where he could easily be spotted miles off the coastlines of Chicago and other nearby cities and towns.

Herman was really packing in his trees to the extreme. There was a time where he lost a ship and almost lost another, before he eventually decided to purchase a larger ship to carry the amount of trees he needed to make a reasonable profit.

With a larger ship, Herman felt as though he should sail even further north. He and his crew would almost always sail into harsh, unpredictable weather. After his second to last journey from Chicago to head back north, Captain Herman Schuenemann did not recaulk his vessel while it was being loaded with 5,500 Christmas Trees. A responsible captain always recaulks his ship after a long journey, especially before heading right back out. This neglected task may have been the cause of Schuenemann and his crew's demise. It didn't help that the brute blizzard caused ice to form on the Christmas Trees causing the schooner to weigh even more.

It's been said that since Schuenemann was being sued, he may have neglected recaulking his ship due to financial strains. Besides being sued, Schuenemann was also very deep in debt, However, now with him recently being able to sell his Christmas Trees right off his ship and all the middlemen he had eliminated, he'd more-than-likely able to get himself out in a reasonable amount of time.

Lake Michigan

There are over 2500 documented shipwrecks in Lake Michigan. More than any other Great Lake

There are over 2500 documented shipwrecks in Lake Michigan. More than any other Great Lake

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The Last Sighting of Rouse Simmons

Rouse Simmons

The Christmas Tree Ship

A Three Mast Schooner

The legacy of Rouse Simmons (aka The Christmas Tree Ship) still lives on in the area where it sunk 30 miles off of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. The ship was named after a businessman in Kenosha, Wisconsin by the shipbuilders Allan, McClelland, & Company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1868.

Ghost sightings are a common event. Tourist attractions are successful and the few items recovered from the sunken Rouse Simmons are displayed at the Rogers Street Fishing Village Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin which brings in a generous crowd during tourist season

Captain Herman Schuenemann obtained the ship in 1911 and was thought to be a little rough when handling it. Schuenemann had to pack and carry as many trees possible. The slightest error could leave Schuenemann flat broke. The ship Schuenemann had (right before obtaining Rouse Simmons) was said to have been once towed in by a gas powered tug boat because it may have been taking in water and was so heavy that it was sailing very low.

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It wouldn't be until 1971 that the Rouse Simmons would be discovered. Scuba diver Gordon Kent Bellrichard came across the wreckage 172 feet down, 30 miles off the shores of Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

Rouse Simmons (aka The Christmas Tree Ship)

The last known photo of Rouse Simmons (aka "The Christmas Tree Ship")

The last known photo of Rouse Simmons (aka "The Christmas Tree Ship")

Captain Santa

Captain Herman Schuenemann was also known as "Captain Santa".

Captain Herman Schuenemann was also known as "Captain Santa".

Captain Herman Schuenemann was an Experienced Sailor

Captain Santa was Well Known & Well Liked

The Final Farewell

November of 1911, families from all over "the Region", even as far as Hammond, Indiana, came to the shipping docks of the Chicago River off Rush Street in Chicago to buy a Christmas Tree. Not just any Christmas Tree, I mean there was plenty of competition but people wanted a Christmas Tree that came off The Christmas Tree Ship that was sailed in by Captain Santa. Captain Herman Schuenemann really decorated his ship and could be seen miles away. More than likely, this is probably how Herman Schuenemann got the name "Captain Santa".

When the crowds said their goodbye's and promised to see him next year, nobody thought that this was going to be the final farewell. Herman Schuenemann was also known to be a generous man. He was seen giving away his Christmas Trees to needy families. Another reason why he was given the name Captain Santa.

Herman made most of his money (75%) in the later months, the rest of the year he made just 25% of his total income. The months November and December were very important to him. Christmas Tree sales was a major source of his annual income.

The night before Captain Schuenemann set sail, many other vessels decided to stay anchored at dock, Schuenemann already had his mind set that he was to sail off at noon the next day - no matter what. Two of Schuenemann's crew members decided not sail off while others, not wanted to be left behind, complained that the ship was not seaworthy. The Christmas Tree Ship was packed with 5,500 Christmas Trees.

Rouse Simmons wasn't the only ship that sunk during the storm. The South Shore, the Three Sisters, and the Two Brothers all had similar fates.

Right before Rouse Simmons sunk, an unknown crew member wrote a note and placed it in a corked bottle and threw it overboard. This must have been a desperate attempt to tell the story of what happened because he knew he was facing certain death. It was a powerful wave that struck the ship causing a bundle of trees, a small life boat and two crew members to be washed overboard. Captain Schuenemann and the remaining crew members knew they were going to die.

Christmas Trees and other debris from the wreckage were found ashore in Pentwater, Michigan. The corked bottle that contained the note was eventually found on the shores of Sheboygan.

The note 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.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2017 James Timothy Peters

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