Captain Nelson Craite rubbed the icy rain off his binoculars and took another look. He had stepped out of the U.S. Life Saving Station, on the water’s edge of Kewaunee, Wisconsin, because its fogged up windows made viewing the lake impossible from inside. He peered out toward the stormy lake again and spotted the schooner. The flag of the ship was at half-mast—the signal for distress. Craite could see the flag whipping in the gale force winds, but could not make out the name of the troubled vessel through the caked ice across its hull. He noted the sails and rigging were likewise “heavily laden with ice and snow” and observed how the ship “teetered” dangerously in the thirty foot waves. As Craite watched, the ship was carried off to the south, at the mercy of wind and wave. He wired the next Coast Guard station to the south, at Two Rivers, alerting them to the distressed schooner and suggesting they launch their rescue boat immediately to head off the helpless vessel.
It was November 23rd, 1912, and the ship in distress was the Rouse Simmons out of Chicago. A wooden schooner in the waning years of sailing ships, it had been on a desperate late-season run to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan when it was caught by the northwesterly gale. By 1912, the Rouse Simmons was an old ship. Chicago shipbuilding had enjoyed a boom in the years immediately following the Civil War, and the Rouse Simmons was launched during this heyday. Sailing ships like the Rouse Simmons hauled lumber from the northern forests of Michigan and iron ore from the shores of Lake Superior. They carried raw materials, commercial goods, and passengers between the booming lake towns of Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo, and the clipper sailing designs made travel quick and easy across this inner maritime network. In 1876, at the height of this sailing boom, approximately 1,800 craft plied the waters of the Great Lakes.
For most of the year, the Rouse Simmons and her crew of nineteen men hauled timbers from the pine forests of northern Michigan to the lumber mills of Chicago. This north country lumber fed the high demand for building materials in growing urban centers like Chicago and Milwaukee. While earlier decades had been profitable, new railway lines reaching around the lakes were quickly replacing demand for schooner transportation. The captain of the Rouse Simmons, Herman Schuenemann, found it increasingly difficult to make the Rouse Simmons cost-effective.
A rising holiday tradition in the city of Chicago gave Schuenemann a unique opportunity to earn a little extra money. Holiday decoration Christmas trees, which had originally been a German Lutheran tradition, caught on in the immigrant center of Chicago. Small pine trees were easy to come by in the lumbered coasts that Schuenemann visited throughout the year, and so, starting in the 1890s, he and other lumber freighters began to make yearly Christmas tree runs late in the season from the Upper Peninsula. They would load their ships down with small pines and sell their cargoes of Christmas trees along the wharves of Chicago during the holiday season. Schuenemann was a special favorite in this novelty trade, as his charming accent and love of children led to the nickname of “Captain Santa,” while the Rouse Simmons became famous as “The Christmas Tree Ship.” While this trade endeared Schuenemann and his ship to the people of Chicago and served to bring in a little extra money to get the struggling captain through winter, it came with great risk. Winter on the Great Lakes was impossible to predict, and icy waters made things especially dangerous. Running down Lake Michigan in November, captains inevitably ran the risk of being caught by northerly gales. Schuenemann’s own brother, captaining the S. Thule, had gone down in a late season gale in 1892.
On Friday, November 22nd, 1912, “Captain Santa” and his crew loaded the Rouse Simmons with 5,000 trees near Thompson, Michigan. It was an especially large load, and the crew had to lash trees across the deck in order to fit them all. As Schuenemann made ready to sail, the winds began to blow and the weather took a turn for the worse. Two of his crew became so uneasy at the prospects of sailing that they opted to buy train tickets back to Chicago and forgo their wages from the Rouse Simmons. Despite the building waves, Schuenemann decided to make a run for it, attempting to beat the gale.
When Captain George Sogge of the Two Rivers Coast Guard station received Craite’s call on November 23rd, he did not know what distressed ship was running down the Wisconsin coast but he put his rescue crew to action. At 3:10pm, Sogge launched the Two Rivers rescue boat into the teeth of the gale. The rescue slip was a new diesel powered motor boat, but despite its technological advantage, it struggled to navigate against the piling waves and 80mph winds. On the Rouse Simmons, two men had already washed overboard, and the remaining fourteen crewmen had lashed themselves together with the Christmas trees on the deck. Captain Schuenemann was unable to steer, the wheel had been knocked loose during the storm, and the ship churned at the mercy of the storm.
Sogge, in the rescue boat, caught sight of the Rouse Simmons through the sheets of snow, but was unable to close the distance through the pounding waves. By the time the next wave had passed, the ship was nowhere to be found, and the Coast Guard crew returned to the safety of shore, giving up the search. The gale blew for several days, and it remained unclear which
ship had gone down off Two Rivers. Finally, when the weather broke, Christmas trees strewn along the shoreline confirmed that the ship had been the Rouse Simmons, out of Thompson, MI, bound for Chicago, with a load of holiday decorations. They, along with the occasional waterlogged pine picked up in fishermen’s nets off the coast of Two Rivers, remain the final memorial for Captain Santa and the Christmas tree ship of Lake Michigan.
Frederick Stonehouse’s Wreck Ashore: The United States Life-Saving Service on the Great Lakes(Duluth, MN: Lake Superior Port Cities, Inc., 1994)
Theodore J. Karamanski’s thorough Schooner Passage: Sailing Ships and the Lake Michigan Frontier (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000)