New film recalls tragedy of Christmas tree ship
Imagine the horror of Capt. Hermann Schuenemann as the waves on Lake Michigan swelled and his ice-covered schooner dipped lower and lower into the water.
For 25 years, Captain Santa—as he was called—delivered Christmas trees from the northern edge of the lake in the Upper Peninsula to the southwest corner in Chicago.
People in the Windy City flocked to the pier, where his three-mast ship carried 6-foot to 7-foot trees. He sold them for up to $1 and gave away many to the poor.
But the 300-mile journey was risky business.
On Nov. 23, 1912, the good captain apparently ignored reports of an impending storm and set sail from Thompson, Mich., fully loaded with fresh-cut trees.
Just seven months after the Titanic struck an iceberg, Schuenemann and his crew never made it.
Independent filmmaker Bob Leff heard about the Christmas tree ship a year ago, on the 100th anniversary of its sinking.
He was so taken by the tale that he decided to make a film.
“It has all the elements of a good story,” Leff said. “The adventure of the high seas. The over arrogance of someone who thought he could conquer nature. The fact that Schuenemann was a good person and put up a tremendous fight.”
Nothing seemed to be in the captain's favor.
“When loading the ship, it took longer than expected,” Leff said. “They could not sail until Friday, and sailors are superstitious about leaving port on Friday. There also were rumors that rats were seen leaving the ship—a bad omen.”
In response, Schuenemann's crew abandoned him. They said they would take the train and meet him in Chicago. Schuenemann hastily got together replacements, and no one knows exactly how many were on board, maybe 12 to 25.
When the schooner left port with more than 5,000 trees below deck and piled eight feet high above board, the barometer was dropping. Most ships already had left the lake because of dangerous storms in late November.
“There must have been tremendous pressure on Herman to make the trip,” Leff said. “He had a number of unpaid bills, and he needed the income. He also said that the people of Chicago must have their trees for Christmas.”
Only a few hours had passed when Schuenemann and his passengers began to feel the brunt of the gale. First, the rain pounded the deck. Then, ice formed on the rigging. The hatches apparently froze open before someone could close them.
“When water came over the side, it poured into the holes,” Leff said. “There was no radio on board and no way to communicate except with flag signals.”
By Saturday, the crew at Kewaunee's lifesaving station spotted the ship, facing south and flying its flag at half-mast to signal it was in distress. They wondered why it did not come into port. They did not have a motorized rescue boat to send, so they called the lifesaving station at Two Rivers for help.
“I interviewed the director of the museum at Two Rivers, who stood beside a 34-foot-long replica of a lifesaving boat that went out to look for the Christmas tree ship,” Leff said. “Can you imagine the epic bravery of the men who went out in 45-foot-high waves and 65-mph-sustained winds? Four men were out there for four hours in the storm.”
Their motto was: “You have to go out—you don't have to come back.”
They never saw the ship.
In 1971, divers found the wreck of the schooner, called the Rouse Simmons, and pieced together what they think happened.
“Apparently as a last desperate measure, the captain threw the anchor overboard so the ship would face into the wind in hopes that they could survive the storm,” Leff said. “They found the chain some 400 feet off the bow buried in sand. They also eventually located the steering wheel more than a mile away to the north, which would explain why they couldn't steer into port.”
For decades after the storm, Christmas trees shook loose from their chilly grave—some 170 feet below the surface—and washed ashore.
“People would take them home," Leff said. "When divers discovered the ship, they found trees that were still green and still smelled strongly of pine.”
Lake Michigan has some 1,500 wrecks buried in its depths, but few are as dramatic as the tale of the Christmas tree ship.
“The story is almost as well known as the Edmund Fitzgerald and is claimed by every state around the lake,” Leff said. “It is well known regionally, and I am trying to make it known nationally.”
Leff of Cottage Grove has made 11 documentaries since he retired in 1996 as a clinical psychologist. A storyteller at heart, he pursued his dream of making films.
He is happy to report that the sad tale of the Rouse Simmons has a happy ending.
In 2000, a committee was formed to raise money to buy Christmas trees to give to needy families in Chicago. In keeping with Schuenemann's tradition, the U.S. Coast Guard brought the trees to Navy Pier in a Michigan-based cutter.
During the first week of December, the Coast Guard continues to hand out more than 1,300 free trees every year.
“Chicago is remembering the spirit of Herman Schuenemann,” Leff said. “Some families have never experienced the joy that a simple tree can bring to the 'Dark Season.' That Chicago celebrates Schuenemann is the most inspiring part of this story.”
Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or email email@example.com.