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The Christmas Tree Ship

December 24, 2011
Sue Eckhoff - Grundy County Heritage Museum , Reinbeck Courier

It was November 27, 1912. The sights and sounds of the holiday season were creeping into bustling Chicago. Each year the arrival of the creaking old three mast schooner Rouse Simmons, served as a signal for the beginning of the Christmas season. The schooner always ended its shipping season by bringing Chicago a large profitable cargo of Christmas trees.

To increase his profits, Captain Schuenemann cut out the middle man and sold the Christmas trees directly from the deck of his ship. The Captain wasn't all about profit though, for he often gave trees to families who could not afford them.

Just before Thanksgiving of 1912, a severe snowstorm had destroyed ten freighters and a reported 400 seamen lost their lives. With bad weather approaching, Captain Schuenemann ordered the lines of his ship, the Rouse Simmons, cast off and its cargo, about 5,500 Christmas trees, to begin the voyage down to Chicago from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Captain Schuenemann needed this profitable run as he had debts that needed paying.

Barely out upon Lake Michigan, the gale began to blow. Blinding snow squalls and pitching seas bounced the schooner all over. Near Two Rivers, Wisconsin, the ship was spotted flying her distress flags as she struggled to stay afloat.

Ice began to form on the already overloaded ship. As the ice created a thickening blanket on the ship, the deck began to sag under the additional weight of the trees lashed to it. Every part of the ship creaked, moaned and shrieked in the howling gale. Sometime during the night two sailors were sent to check the lashings. A tremendous wave washed over them, sending them and many of the trees over the side. With less weight on board, Captain Schunemann and his first mate were able to maneuver the vessel towards the shelter of Bailey's Harbor, but the wind changed suddenly, producing a horrific snowstorm, and an incredible drop in temperature. A thick blanket of ice quickly formed as the unrelenting waves crashed against the ship. The situation was now desperate.

From the station tower at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, the men of the United States Lifesaving Service sighted the Rouse Simmons flying distress signals. A rescue team 25 miles to the south launched a boat in an attempt to intercept the schooner. A two hour search finally let them see a glimpse of the pitiful ship, barely afloat, and a mass of ice. The rescuers moved full speed ahead, but blinding snow again made it impossible to see the schooner. The Rouse Simmons vanished from sight and was never seen again.

Much later, a note was found on the Wisconsin shoreline. The note was in a bottle and read "Everybody gone. Goodbye. I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat was washed overboard. Leaking bad. Ingvald and Steve lost too. God help us. Herman Schunemann."

It was another ten years before evidence of the Rouse Simmons was discovered when Captain Schunemann's wallet was found among the fish caught in the nets of a Wisconsin fisherman. The actual Rouse Simmons wreck was discovered in 1971 when a scuba diver happened upon it. It still contained hundreds of what was left of the Christmas trees. The anchor was retrieved and now stands at the entrance of the Milwaukee Yacht Club.



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