The Christmas Tree Ships

November 22, 2011

Chicago may not have an ocean, but we do have Lake Michigan. We are a maritime city. This is one day to remember that tradition, with the story of the Christmas Tree ships.

Around the turn of the 20th Century, the German custom of decorating Christmas trees was taking hold in Chicago. The closest evergreen forests were in northern Wisconsin and upper Michigan.

Each November a few lake schooners loaded up with trees and sailed them down to Chicago. Customers would come over to the Clark Street dock, go aboard a ship, and select their tree. It was fun way for city families to get into the holiday spirit.

The C. H. Hackley, shown here moored in front of the John A. Rusk Building at 104 S. Water Street in 1909, was one of many ships that carried Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago.

Herman Schuenemann was master of a Christmas Tree ship. Chicago children affectionately called him "Captain Santa." In 1912 he owned part-interest in the 123-foot three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons. The ship was 44 years old.

Here, in a photo taken in 1909, Capt. H. Schuenemann stands (center) alongside two fellow sailors.

On November 22 of 1912, the Rouse Simmons sailed out from Thompson, Mich. The ship carried close to 5,000 trees, and one observer said it looked like a "floating forest." Chicago was at the other end of Lake Michigan, 300 miles away.

The next afternoon, a hundred miles down the Wisconsin coast, a snowstorm was moving in. An officer at the Kewaunee rescue station observed a schooner on the lake flying a distress flag. He sent out the station's power boat to help. But the heavy weather and gathering darkness made it impossible to locate the schooner.

The Rouse Simmons never reached Chicago. Putting the pieces together later, authorities concluded that the missing ship was the schooner flying the distress flag near Kewaunee. Most likely it had gone down in the storm.

The disappearance of the Rouse Simmons hastened the end of the Christmas Tree ships. Within a few years trains and trucks were being used to bring the evergreens to Chicago. But the story was not yet over.

Here, a 1915 photo shows Capt. Schuenemann’s daughter, Elsie, standing near the wheel of a Christmas tree ship tied up on the Chicago River near the Clark Street Bridge. After Schuenemann’s death his daughters continued their family tradition by shipping trees to Chicago by railroad and displaying them on river boats.

Here, a photo taken in 1917 shows Capt. Schuenemann’s twin daughters, Hazel and Pearl Schuenemann, standing among Christmas trees for sale wearing garlands of greens around their necks.

In 1924 a lake fisherman hauled in his net and pulled up Capt. Schuenemann's wallet, wrapped in oilskin. Over the decades other remnants of the Rouse Simmons turned up. Mariners reported seeing a ghostly schooner in the fog, and the ship took on status as a local "flying Dutchman." A scuba diver finally located the wreckage of the ship off Two Rivers in 1971.

In recent years a U.S. Coast Guard vessel has re-enacted the voyage of the Christmas Tree ships to Chicago. The 2011 event is scheduled for the weekend of December 2-4 at Navy Pier.

Here's a YouTube video of a dive to the Rouse Simmons: