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.
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.