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Captain Santa a Chicago Christmas Story

A message in a bottle:

“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.”

The bottle, corked with the thick stem of an evergreen, washed up on a Wisconsin shore sometime after Chicago-bound Great Lakes ships disappeared during a late November storm.

Some say the message was from the Rouse Simmons*. It could have been from one of three other lost ships that left north woods harbors the same day.

If you were a ship captain on the Great Lakes, it was never a matter of if a catastrophe would strike but when. This was especially true if you sailed in November.

The Rouse Simmons left the dock of Thompson, Michigan, for Chicago on November 22, 1912, heavily laden with cargo.

The next afternoon, the schooner was spotted by the Kewaunee, Wisconsin Life Saving station. (Approximately 185 miles south) The ship was flying its flag at half-mast, the universal sign of distress. By the time rescue boats could be launched from Two Rivers, Wisconsin, the schooner had vanished.

The Rouse Simmons was no ordinary schooner. It carried no ordinary load.

The Rouse Simmon’s part-owner and the captain was Herman E. Schuenemann, known as Captain Santa. The cargo was three to five thousand Christmas Trees. Witnesses claim the deck looked like a pine forest.

As they were known, the Christmas tree ships sailed from the Northwoods to Chicago every November, docking at the Chicago River near Clark Street. They sold trees right off the boats, making more profit than wholesaling them. The price range was .50 cents to $3.00.

The ships were festooned with electric lights and decorations on the riggings. Schuenemann would lash a tree atop the main mast of his schooner.

Herman E. Schuenemann had a long nautical career. He captained several ships. During his career, every November, he brought a load of Christmas trees to Chicago. A newspaper named him Captain Santa. Soon, Chicagoans referred to him by the nickname. This was not only due to his yearly runs but for his generosity in giving away trees to the needy and churches.

In 1910, Schuenemann purchased an interest in the Rouse Simmons. The schooner was 44 years old, possibly well past its prime to sail the Great Lakes, especially overladen during a heavy storm. Herman E. Schuenemann and his family were entrepreneurial. Aside from the trees, his wife and daughters made wreaths and boughs to sell from the schooner.

After the ship vanished, Chicago newspapers and Schuenemann’s family held out hope that he found a safe harbor along the coastline. Hope vanished weeks later when Christmas trees started washing up on the Wisconsin shoreline. The schooner had a crew of 6-8 sailors. Since lumberjacks sailed back home on the ships for the winter, the actual number of souls lost is unknown.

After the Ship perished, Schuenemann’s wife and daughters continued to sell Christmas trees off the docks. They would have them shipped to Chicago and sell them off the boat. Eventually, they had the trees shipped by train. After Ms. Schuenemann’s death, the daughters moved the operation to a vacant lot in the city.

Captain Santa provided trees to his Church, St. Pauls United Church of Christ. In 2012, the church commemorated the Centennial of the Rouse Simmons sinking and the generosity of Captain Santa.

In 1924 an oilskin packet was found in the nets of Wisconsin fishermen. The packet contained the wallet of Captain Herman E. Schuenemann. In the wallet were business cards, newspaper clippings, and some business correspondence.

The Rouse Simmons was discovered in 1971 by a wreckage search diver, Gordon Kent Bellrichard, while he was searching for another sunken vessel.

The tale of Captain Santa is one story of Chicago. It is part of the city’s maritime history. It is the story of brutal, harsh work to earn a living. It is the story of struggle, people defying nature. It is the story of Chicago’s history of generosity. It is also a cautionary Chicago tale of courage and folly. Captain Santa attempted to sail before a storm hit. As fate would have it, he sailed too late.

*The Rouse Simmons was named after the brother of a well-known Kenosha businessman. Rouse Simmons’s brother, Zalman, became the first manufacturer to mass-produce wire spring mattresses in 1876. The company became the Simmons Bedding Company, now known as Simmons Beauty Rest.

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