Rouse Simmons: The Story of the Christmas Tree Ship


At the close of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, schooners on the Great Lakes were a staple of the shipping industry. They transported lumber and other goods from port to port around the lakes. Before winter set in and froze the lakes many of the schooner captains would load their boats with pine trees from the north and take them to the larger ports along the lake. They would sell the harvested Christmas tree right from the deck of their boats. It became a family tradition in many households to go down to the docks and pick out a fresh cut tree for Christmas. It assured the captains a financially successful last voyage of the year. The cost of the trees ranged from 25 cents to a dollar. One of those Christmas tree ships became a legend.

Captain Herman Schuenemann

Herman Schuenemann and his brother August began shipping goods around the ports of Lake Michigan in the 1880s. They would lease or rent schooners, contract with lumber mills in the upper Michigan peninsula, and ship the raw lumber to various ports during the shipping season. For a final journey they would load their ships with freshly cut pine trees and sell them in Chicago as Christmas trees.

In 1898, August lost his life in a storm on the lake. But Captain Herman Schuenemann continued working the lake. While he used various boats for shipping he purchased the Rouse Simmons, a three-mast schooner, in 1910 and always used it for the Christmas tree run.

The Rouse Simmons

The Rouse Simmons was a three-mast schooner used on the Great Lakes for shipping.

Built in 1868 at a cost of $14,000, a very expensive ship for the time
127 feet in length
27.5 feet in the beam
Named after a member of the Simmons family, an influential family that later founded the company that manufactured the Simmons Mattress.

When Captain Schuenemann purchased the Rouse Simmons, it had already sunk and been raised in 1904. The masts had been knocked off and then refitted in 1906. It was clearly a boat that was beginning to show its age.

The Last Voyage of the Rouse Simmons

Traditionally Captain Schuenemann would take his load of trees on the five-day journey from Thompson, Michigan to Chicago, Illinois and arrive on the day after Thanksgiving. Because it was the last voyage of the season he filled the hold with 5,000 trees. He lashed another 500 to the deck. As he left port in late November of 1912, the captain and his crew could tell bad weather was on the way. Several crew members actually refused to go because someone saw rats leaving the ship right before it was set to sail, a bad omen. The ship ran into a full blown winter blizzard on the lake. With an already overloaded ship, the waves breaking over the boat got into the hold and quickly turned to ice in the freezing temperatures. This added extra tons of weight to the ship, weight the Rouse Simmons could not endure.

The Rescue Attempt of the Rouse Simmons

On the November 23, 1912, the Rouse Simmons was observed flying a distress flag about five miles off the coast of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. A United States Lifesaving Station (later to become known as the Coast Guard) in Kewaunee, Wisconsin was notified and launched a rescue boat. Despite the brutal weather, this rescue boat was able to get within an eighth of a mile of the ship. Then the rescue ship lost site of the Rouse Simmons behind a wave and the blowing snow. The Rouse Simmons would not be seen again for nearly sixty years.

Life After the Rouse Simmons

Captain Shuenemann’s wife, Barbara, and children continued the business for over twenty years after his death. When it became cheaper and safer to send the Christmas trees by train Barbara Schuenemann showed some true marketing savvy. She would ship the trees to Chicago by rail, have them arrive at night, rent a schooner already in port and have the trees transported to the ship from the trains under cover of darkness. This gave the impression that the Christmas Tree ship had once again made the perilous journey over Lake Michigan.

Artifacts from the Rouse Simmons

After the Rouse Simmons went down, a message in a bottle was found. It allegedly was written by Captain Schuenemann. It read:

“Everybody, goodbye. I guess we are thru. Leaking badly. God help us. Signed: Herman Schuenemann.”

Over the years more items were found.

Another bottled message.
A seaman’s wallet.
And for years to come fisherman would complain about the inordinate number of Christmas trees fouling their nets.

In 1971, while searching for another shipwreck, Kent Bellrichard came upon the remains of the Rouse Simmons. It was over 180 feet down. Many artifacts from the ship were brought to the surface and are now on display at various museums and organizations in the area.

Manitowoc Maritime Museum
Milwaukee Yacht Club
Rogers Street fishing Village Museum

Fine Art and the Rouse Simmons

Charles Vickery (1913-1998), a Chicago area artist, painted a series of four pictures of the Rouse Simmons. These paintings were an instant hit in the artistic community. Perhaps the most popular, and today the rarest, print was the painting of the Christmas Tree ship filled with trees at the Clark Street dock on the Chicago River. Families are busily buying and unloading their annual Christmas trees.

While there were many Christmas Tree ships on the Great Lakes, Captain Schuenemann and the Rouse Simmons are the two memories that people on the Great Lakes think of when talking of the Christmas Tree ship. Even though his body was never found Captain Schuenemann has a grave at Acacia Cemetery, in a suburb of Chicago. On his gravestone: an image of a lone Christmas tree.