This year in November, will mark the 108 year anniversary of the shipwreck of the Christmas Tree Ship; Rouse Simmons. Back in the mid 1800’s, the Great lakes were the super highway of the region. Schooners and steamships carried cargo and people all across the region. It was a more efficient mode of transport than the less developed railways and paved roads that would come. The rouse Simmons was a sleek Three-Masted Schooner built in 1868 in Wisconsin as part of Muskegon lumber baron Charles Hackley’s fleet. Much of the ships early life was spent delivering timber from Hackley’s mill to ports around the Great Lakes. U.S. Customs records show that the ship made almost weekly runs between Grand Haven and Chicago. By 1910, she began to show signs of wear and tear and after a multiple changes in ownership, she fell into the hands of one Captain Herman Schuenemann. For years his family would make late season Christmas tree runs bringing evergreens to Chicago docks. Late season runs could be treacherous as November is one the most volatile weather months on Lake Michigan. The sip would arrive at the docks decorated in Chrismas lights and families would be allowed to board and pick out inexpensive trees to take home for Chistmas. Known for his generosity, Schuenemann became known as, “Captain Santa”.
On Friday, Nov.22, 1912, the Rouse Simmons floated away from port in the Upper Peninsula with a cargo hold stuffed with trees and a deck stacked 8 feet high with them. Some say she looked like a floating forest. As she made he way south towards Chicago, a storm packing gale force winds was approaching.By 2:50 pm on Saturday Nov. 23,1912, rescuers at the Kewaunee, Wis. station spotted the Rouse Simmons with a half mast flag signaling distress. Kewaunee station had no powered lifeboat and called Two Rivers Station for help. Surfmen launched a powerboat and headed to intersect the Rouse Simmons. They never found her. She seemed to just have vanished .
While the last moments of the Rouse Simmons are lost to history, the wreck has been identified and divers still make trips to see the final resting place of the Christmas Tree Ship. Divers claim that inside the cargo hold stacks of Christmas tress are still piled up with some still retaining their needles.
In 1999, the U.S. Coastguard and the Chicago maritime community, revived this tradition. Using the Coastguard Cutter, Mackinac, Christmas trees from northern Michigan are delivered to underprivileged families in Chicago. The load of holiday trees are delivered in a ceremony each December.
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