Christmas Tree Ships: Schuenemann Brothers

Schooners (Courtesy Library of Congress)

Schooners (Courtesy Library of Congress)

The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Titanic pretty much overshadowed the anniversary of other tragic sinkings this year. With all the publicity the Rouse Simmons didn’t have much of a chance at making national headlines. Thanks goes to Mary K. Doyle at Midwest Mary for bringing the schooner Rouse Simmons to my attention. Mary was kind enough to send me a newspaper article regarding the “Christmas Tree Ships” of the Great Lakes.

Built in 1868 the Rouse Simmons was destined for fame and notoriety. While operating as a “Christmas tree ship” in the early 1900s she was a bit of a novelty. Steamers had, for the most part, replaced the old ships of sail on the Great Lakes and on the high seas. The Simmons was captained by Herman Schuenemann, an enterprising businessman with an eye for marketing. It would have been easier to have shipped the thousands of trees to Chicago by rail, rather than plying Lake Michigan in bad weather. But “Captain Santa” (Schuenemann’s nickname) soldiered on even as his debts mounted. Herman hadn’t always been the sole commander of the business. Prior to his untimely death, elder brother August had been the sailor of the two. Herman, on the other hand, remained shore based while orchestrating the various Schuenemann businesses.

After their father’s death, the Schuenemann brothers had pulled up stakes in Ahnapee, Wisconsin and moved to the burgeoning city of Chicago. There they moved up from their poor social standing and into middle-class.

It was in 1884 that August made his first delivery of Christmas trees to Chicago. Little did he know he was paving the way for a business that would make his brother famous. And ultimately be the death of them both. In 1898 August was preparing to deliver a cargo of trees to Chicago. The only thing was, he didn’t have a ship. Cash strapped he located a $200 vessel, the S. Thal. August couldn’t afford to be overly choosy, so the S. Thal it was. Sadly, en route the S. Thal was lost with all hands. With his brother’s loss, Herman took the reins of business. Not surprisingly, Herman excelled in the business, surpassing even his brother. In addition to Christmas trees, Herman invested in Christmas decorations which were manufactured straight from the ship; some by his wife and daughters and others by ladies hired on for the job.

By 1910 Herman was using the Rouse Simmons to haul his cargo of Christmas trees. This ship was destined to be his last command. Which brings us to his final voyage. Herman had trouble trying to get the needed 16 crewmen together. One man, nearly 70-years-old, had signed on out of obligation to Herman although he didn’t want to go. On 22 November 1912 the Simmons left Michigan bound for Chicago with a load of 5,500 trees. When she pulled out of Michigan, people would later note that the Simmons appeared to be overloaded. A former crewman said that she had no ballast and was top heavy. Then there is the suspicion that the ship may have been in need of repairs. During another voyage she had been forced to stop off for repairs when she began taking on water. On November 23 the weather turned ugly. Other schooners were forced to seek shelter off of the lake as the wind gained force and the snow began to fall.

A family at Christmastime, circa. 1900 (Courtesy Library of Congress)

When the Simmons didn’t show up in Chicago as expected, it was thought that she may have only been delayed. But when December rolled around the Simmons still hadn’t shown herself. Something was wrong. Newspapers jumped at the story and began printing all sorts of far-fetched stories and conflicting reports. A revenue cutter, the Tuscarora, under Captain Berry was sent out to search for the Simmons. There had been a report of a ship answering to the description of the Simmons and it was Berry’s duty to find out if there was anything to the news. However, Berry would prove a little inept and his search was fruitless. Later another search would be carried out but with no results. When other schooners limped into Chicago it gave hope to the families of the crewmen. Perhaps the Simmons had also survived after riding out the storm. To give readers an idea of how bad the storm was, in the aftermath one captain said he “wouldn’t go out in this storm for all the trees the Mauretania could hold”. But of course hindsight is always better then foresight.

With Schuenemann’s death, his wife Barbara and three daughters carried on the business. But there would be no sailing for them. The trees were brought to Chicago via trains and sold from a ship and later a store.

In 1971 the wreck of the Rouse Simmons was accidentally located  near Two Rivers, Wisconsin still holding onto her cargo of trees.

Source: Neuschel, Fred. Lives and Legends of the Christmas Tree Ships.

36 thoughts on “Christmas Tree Ships: Schuenemann Brothers

    • Yeah, it had to come as a blow to the Schuenemann family, although I guess it wouldn’t have been totally unexpected. After all it was the “gales of November” that sunk the famous Edmund Fitzgerald. Thanks for your comment!


  1. Amazing story. I had goosebumps when I read November 22nd because that is the same day 50 years later that John F. Kennedy was shot. Then I had goosebumps again when I read that in 1971 the wreck was discovered after all those years.


  2. There is a great museum near Two Rivers in nearby Manitowoc. If you ever get up to WI it would be well worth your while. Lots of info on Great Lakes sinkings. I think there is another Christmas Tree wreck just off the coast where I live in the Milwaukee area. Divers like to explore it. Interesting post as usual J.G.


    • Will have to keep that in mind!

      Come to think of it the Rouse Simmons was built in Milwaukee. You all certainly have a rich maritime heritage up around the Great Lakes. Thanks for your comment!


    • I think delivering the trees by ship helped to draw a lot of business. I do wonder though, had Schuenemann lived how long would he have continued shipping the trees by sea? He was falling deep into debt because of the venture.

      Thanks for your comment!


    • Yeah, had to be hard on the families of the crew, never knowing for certain if their loved ones were dead or alive.

      It struck me as strange how these ships aren’t more well known. Perhaps their story is more regionally popularized. Thanks for your comment.


    • I’d still like to link you to our Social Studies site if that would be ok. I’m not totally sure how that works, but I think whenever you would write a post, it would go out on our facebook to all our FB and Twitter friends. 🙂 Let me know. Marsha )


    • Hello, Marsha

      I’m not very tech savvy so you forgive my ignorance. Would that require a FB account? I don’t have one and to tell the truth don’t really want on. If it doesn’t require an FB account then by all means, link away! Again please excuse my ignorance. 🙂


    • It doesn’t require you to have FB! I’ll have to check into how to do it. But it is just linking our word Pess accounts so that wen you post, it also posts to our account. Since all you write is History, it is the perfect link. Mine is linked (or was), but I write such silly stuff, that is inappropriate to a professional organization! 🙂


  3. Just wanted to come back to this post to say I enjoyed learning about the Christmas tree ships! Quite fascinating! And had I learned of this sooner in December I would have tried some of my own research on the subject. It seems a bit a late now, but I’d like to investigate by the time the 101st anniversary rolls around. 🙂


Share Your Thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s