The Christmas Tree Ghost Ship

The Rouse Simmons (Image: Chicago Christmas Ship)

The rats always desert a sinking ship.  The though kept repeating through the mind of sailor Hogan Hoganson as he watched rats fleeing the Rouse Simmons; dropping into the frigid water on that cold November day in 1912 as the ship sat tied to the wharf in Chicago.

The Rouse Simmons was the famous Chicago “Christmas Tree Ship.”  Every year at Christmas time, her captain, Herman Schuenemann, sailed across Lake Michigan to Manistique, Michigan, to pick up a load of Christmas trees.  Returning to Chicago, he’d tie-up near the Clark Street Bridge and sell the trees directly to residents of the Windy City.  Schuenemann also earned the moniker “Captain Santa” through his generously giving trees to needy families.

By the time the Rouse Simmons prepared for that faithful 1912 trip, she’d become fairly long in the tooth.  Built in 1868, she’d plied the Great Lakes lumber trade for around twenty years.  Following her lumber service, she changed hands several times until Herman Schuenemann acquired the ship in 1910 in a partnership with fellow captain Charles Nelson and businessman Mannes Bonner.

Schuenemann had the Rouse Simmons recaulked prior to his 1911 Christmas tree trip, but failed to do so before the 1912 sailing, possibly due to his financial situation in connection with debts owed.  Since the other passages had gone off without a hitch, Schuenemann likely expected no trouble.  Besides, even with a heavy cargo of 5,000 Christmas trees, the only real danger came if the tress got wet and froze.

Ominously, Schuenemann’s brother August had died during one of the Christmas tree runs in November 1898.  August had purchased 3,500 trees in Sturgeon Bay and was heading back to Chicago sailing the S. Thal with a crew of three when the ship was caught in a fierce storm off Glencoe, Illinois.  The S. Thal broke apart and went down with all hands.  Herman likely only missed the trip due to the birth of his twin daughters that October.

Despite the trepidation of some of the crew, including Captain Nelson, who told his sister before the voyage, “I know the Simmons isn’t safe, but I promised to go and I can’t go back on my word,” the ship reached port at Manistique without incident.  There the crew and dock hands began filling the ship with trees.

Already troubled by the vision of fleeing rats, the loading of the trees proved the final straw for sailor Hoganson, who refused to sail on the return trip to Chicago.  As he put it:

“When [the captain] had filled the hold with Christmas trees, we were ordered to pile up a deck load.  The load grew and grew and still they had us pilling more and more trees on top…I protested to Captain Nelson, telling him that if we struck heavy weather, the boat would be too top-heavy to weather it.  But the captain seemed to think he knew more about it than a seaman, and ordered us to pile more trees on deck.”

Captain Schuenemann, center (Image: Chicago Christmas Ship)

Schuenemann’s desire to pack the ship with as many trees as possible was likely due to the fact the unpredictable winter weather discouraged other captains from sailing late in the season, while a major snow storm had covered the tree farms in Michigan and Wisconsin.  With the shortage of trees from other sources, Schuenemann possibly saw the potential to make extra profit and pay off his debts.

The Rouse Simmons set out for Chicago on November 21st with Schuenemann, Nelson and nine other crewmen.  Despite the Great Lakes’ reputation for ferocious winter storms, the 1912 season on Lake Michigan had so far been relatively quiet with only one major storm.  Unfortunately for the men of the Rouse Simmons another major storm was brewing and they found themselves right in the middle of it.

During the night of the 22nd, fierce winds and waves battered the ship.  Two men were sent on deck to check the lashings for the trees.  A giant wave washed both men overboard along with several trees and the ship’s small boat (her only life boat).

In desperation, Captain Schuenemann directed the dying schooner towards the safety of Bailey’s Harbor.  The storm worsened and continued to buffet the vessel.  The trees remaining on deck began to cake with ice, adding significant additional weight to the already overloaded ship.

The logs of the Kewaunee Life Saving Station record the crew spotting a ship matching the description of the Rouse Simmons at 2:50 pm on November 23rd.  She was riding low in the water and flying a distress flag.  The station’s rescue boat was out on another mission, so Keeper Nelson Craite telephoned Keeper George E. Sogge at nearby Two Rivers Life Saving Station, alerting him about a vessel in distress.

Shortly after 3:00 pm, Two Rivers station launched their gas-powered rescue boat Tuscarora in an attempt to assist the ailing Rouse Simmons.  The poor visibility made the task almost impossible.  The rescue boat momentarily spotted the Rouse Simmons riding dangerous low in the water, but quickly lost sight of her in the rapidly deteriorating weather conditions.  After an unsuccessful two-hour search, the storm and coming darkness forced the Tuscarora to return to port.  The Rouse Simmons and her crew were never seen or heard from again, although hope remained that she might have found safe harbor to ride out the storm.

A few days later, all hope was lost as bits of the Rouse Simmons began to wash up on shore, including a note.  The note, found stuffed inside a bottle crocked with a small piece of pine cut from one of the Christmas trees, read:

“Friday…everybody goodbye.  I guess we are all through.  During the night the small boat washed overboard.  Leaking bad.  Invald and Steve lost too.  God help us.”

True to form that the Great Lakes never give up her dead, the body of Captain Schuenemann was never recovered.

In 1924, Captain Schuenemann’s wallet, still wrapped in protective oilskin, was discovered in the net of a fishing boat.  Then in 1971, a salvage diver discovered the remains of the Rouse Simmons, her hold still filled with Christmas trees, resting in 172 feet of water.

Yet, since shortly after her fateful final voyage, Great Lakes sailors have reported seeing the ghost of the Rouse Simmons.  She’s most often spotted on moonlit nights, her sails ripped to tatters and wildly flapping about as if blown by gale winds, as she and her phantom crew continue in desperation to reach safety.  Sailors claim one moment she is there and the next she has vanished…

2010 All rights reserved.  This copyrighted material may not be reposted or reproduced in any form without permission.]

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