December, turn of the 20th century- Chicago. A young boy and his family stroll down to the Clark Street docks with 7 schooners lined up, draped in fairy lights, stocked with Christmas trees. The boy drags his mother over to the famous Schooner Rouse Simmons, so they can pick their holiday tree from the hands of Captain Santa. The boy doesn’t know his real name, but Herman Schuenemann was a well seasoned Christmas Tree runner, having commanded 4 ships previously, helps the boy and his mother pick out the perfect Christmas Tree, to be delivered later on. Herman Schuenemann was known for his generosity and kept newspaper clippings the town of Chicago wrote about him in his Oilskin Wallet, he showed one to the boy while his mother paid, and sent them on their way. A few days before Christmas, he decided to head home early to spend time with his wife, and three children, not knowing this would be his last Christmas.
Over thirty years of expertise were under Captain Santa’s belt, but this could not control what happened in November of 1912. On the 22nd the Rouse Simmons left port at Thompson, Michigan, laden with somewhere between 3000-5000 Christmas trees, to head home to Chicago. From there, the history gets a little hazy. The departure of the Rouse Simmons happened to occur at the same time as the beginnings of a massive winter storm to hit Lake Michigan. A confirmed sighting on November 23rd, written down in the Life Saving Station logs claim that at 2:50 p.m. they saw a ship (at the time the identity was unknown) heading south with the flag at half mast- meaning it was in distress. The men at the station tried to contact two ships to help the schooner, but one had already left the area, and the other, by the time they got to the location, were unable to find the distressed ship.
At first, the families of those aboard the Rouse Simmons were unworried when the Christmas Tree schooner failed to return to port on time, but as the days turned into weeks, and the weeks faded into months, the chances of anyone returning home grew slimmer. Soon Christmas trees started washing up on the banks, and the fate of those aboard was all but sealed. In 1924 a fisherman caught an oilskin wallet. Inside? Newspaper clippings of Captain Santa. The wallet was returned to the family to keep.
The exact details of what happened to the Christmas tree schooner is unknown, but theories include the ship already being in rough conditions, too much weight, and the storm breaking too much for them to survive. She was one of many others lost during this storm, and her demise signaled the beginning of the end for schooners hauling Christmas trees to Chicago. By 1920 hauling trees had completed halted, and by the end of the 20s, cargo schooners had almost completed disappeared from the lakes.
Currently in early December every year, the final voyage of the Rouse Simmons is remembered through the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, where they deliver a batch of Christmas trees to Chicago’s less fortunate.
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