The Chicago Christmas Tree Ship Disaster

There’s nothing like a shipwreck to spoil the holidays, and nothing like the unbridled enthusiasm of a young child to restore one’s faith in the world in general.

For many years, one of the great holiday traditions of Chicago was the arrival of the famous “Christmas Tree Ship.” Starting in 1887, Herman and August Schuenemann began docking their ship, the Rouse Simmons, at a designated mooring on the Chicago River near the Clark Street Bridge. There, they annually sold over 25,000 trees that had been cut far to the north and loaded on the vessel for the trip to the city.

Many of the largest trees ended up in public halls and theatres, and even government buildings. Marshall Fields always had several. The rest were sold to the eager citizenry. Generations of Chicagoans obtained their trees in this way. By 1912, after more than twenty five years in business, most trees on the Schuenemann’s ship were selling for seventy-five cents to one dollar each… and there was no shortage of customers. And each year after Christmas, Herman affixed a sign to the dock, reminding customers that the ship had returned to the frozen Upper Peninsula and would be back next year with another load of trees.

Herman (c) and two of the crew

Herman (c) and two of the crew

The happy crowds and holiday cheer was brought to the Second City not without risk. November – the month in which the trees had to be loaded and sailed across the Great Lakes – is a particularly treacherous time on Lake Michigan. High winds and snow squalls had sent many ships to the frigid bottom. Even August Schuenemann, who had helped Herman start the Christmas tree business, was lost in the waters off Glencoe in 1898. But the surviving Schuenemann brother had faith in the skills of his seasoned crew, and his ship, built in 1868 and specially fitted to the lumber industry, was a sturdy vessel.

On 22 November 1912, Herman Schuenemann and his men loaded sixteen passengers and between 30,000 and 50,000 trees onboard. They then set sail from Manistique MI, bound for Chicago. The sky was threatening and winds were high. Before long, the Rouse Simmons was caught in a full winter storm, far from shore. The sails ripped and ice-covered masts collapsed. The ship went to the bottom with its entire crew. Only a handful of cut trees washed ashore in the days following the ship’s loss.

The city was stunned, and the families of the drowned were grief stricken. Newspapers and the Lake Seaman’s Union organized an emergency relief fund for those facing destitution. Prayer vigils were held, and memorial plaques were installed in chapels and union halls. Searchers scoured the shoreline up and down the lake looking for clues or wreckage. A bottled message was found on a beach several weeks later; it read, “Friday. Everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. Sea washed over our deck load. During the night, the small boat washed over. Ingvald (a deck hand) and Steve (first mate) fell overboard on Thursday. God help us. Herman Schuenemann.” The captain’s wallet was found in 1924, and a second bottled message was found in 1927, reading, “these lines were written at 10:30 p.m. Schooner R.S. ready to go down about 20 miles southeast of Two Rivers Point, 15 miles off shore. All hands lashed to one line. Goodbye. Nelson.”

But the final location of the Rouse Simmons remained a mystery until October 1971. A diver found the remarkably preserved wreck under 180 feet of water off the coast of Two Rivers.

In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, though, Capt Schuenemann’s young daughter, Elsie, vowed in a newspaper interview to continue her father’s tradition of bringing trees to the city. She was quoted as saying, “I am going to try to keep doing my Papa’s Christmas tree business. I will get friends to help me and send trees to Chicago and sell them at the foot of Clark Street. Before I was born, Papa has sold them there, and lots and lots of people never think of going anywhere else for their trees.” Touched by her dedication, the W.C. Holmes shipping company offered the late skipper’s family the use of an extra ship in their flotilla, the Oneida, which was moored right next to the then-empty lot at the Clark Street Bridge where the Rouse Simmons docked for so many years.

After much thought and many misgivings, and at Elsie’s insistence, in Herman’s honor the family accepted the Oneida and continued to bring trees to Chicago, albeit in much smaller numbers. But the tradition remained unbroken, and the season’s happiness gained a foothold again where tears had so recently flowed. The year of the shipwreck was the only one in almost fifty in which no trees made it to Clark Street.

It took the Great Depression and WWII to end the Schuenemann’s business for good. Few if any are now alive who remember the tree lot at the foot of Clark Street, where stands today the Riverwalk Café and Margarita Bar.

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  1. Pingback: Captain Santa and the Christmas Tree Ship | Out of the Shadows, Various Ruminations

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