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Chicago Christmas Tree Wreck - the story of a Christmas tree wreck

The schooner “Rouse Simmons” became a permanent part of the Christmas theme like no other wreck, as it went down carrying a shipment of Christmas trees for the people of Chicago. Today the vessel is known as the legendary “Chicago Christmas Tree Wreck”. It was the end of November 1912. For the whole world, and
Published: November 24, 2020 - 17:00
Updated: July 22, 2023 - 19:01
Chicago Christmas Tree Wreck – the story of a Christmas tree wreck

The schooner “Rouse Simmons” became a permanent part of the Christmas theme like no other wreck, as it went down carrying a shipment of Christmas trees for the people of Chicago. Today the vessel is known as the legendary “Chicago Christmas Tree Wreck”.

It was the end of November 1912. For the whole world, and the world of shipping in particular, it was a year that changed everything and became a permanent part of history. It was in the spring of 1912 that the legendary “Titanic” sank, proving that when faced with the elements of the sea, man is still helpless and at the mercy of the forces of nature. The great world lived with this catastrophe, and in the shadow of these tragic events, to the bustling Chicago, as every year, a shipment of Christmas trees heralded the beginning of the holiday season.

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The appearance of the old schooner “Rouse Simmons” was eagerly awaited by everyone. Traders, customers, children and everyone who celebrated Christmas or saw this special time as a chance to do good business. No wonder, then, that in spite of the powerful storm that took over the waters of Lake Michigan, the captain of the schooner carrying the eagerly awaited shipment of Christmas trees decided to take a chance and face the adverse weather.

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The schooner “Rouse Simmons” was built in 1868, in the shipyard of Allan, McClelland, & Company. Shortly after her completion, she was purchased by lumber merchant tycoon Charles H. Hackley and became part of his merchant fleet, which served nearly all of the pots that dotted the shores of Lake Michigan. After serving a few good years in Hackley’s fleet, the ship changed hands several more times until it was finally purchased by Herman Schuenemann in 1910.

The Schuenemann brothers had been trading Christmas trees in Chicago since the very beginning of the 20th century. The older one, Herman, was killed in a storm in 1898 while transporting a shipment of Christmas trees on the two-masted schooner “S.Thal”. After this accident, the younger brother took over the family business and every year he supplied the people of Chicago with the indispensable symbol of Christmas, which undoubtedly is a Christmas tree. What distinguished him from his competitors was the fact that he sold his trees directly to Chicago residents, thus avoiding all intermediaries and their commissions.

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It was the competitive pricing that led to the slogan ‘Christmas Tree Ship: My Prices are theLowest . Schuenemann himself was known as “Captain Santa” (because he gave away part of his transport for free to the poorest people in Chicago.

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The ship set off on its final voyage from Port Thompson with 5,500 Christmas trees in its holds. According to the plan, it was to arrive in Chicago after a week. It is worth mentioning that the capricious weather that had persisted for several weeks, deterred all competitors from even trying to deliver a single shipment of Christmas trees. So it is not hard to guess that the younger of the Schuenemann brothers could count on a huge profit if they managed to deliver Christmas trees to the residents of the Chicago metropolis.

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Local legend has it that on the day the ‘Rouse Simmons’ was due to set sail from the harbour, the weather was so bad that some sailors refused to board the ship! Nevertheless, the schooner set off around midday filled with Christmas trees on her final voyage. From the very beginning, the ship was plagued by successive storms in which it lost two sailors, a lifeboat and part of the cargo on board.

herman

The “Rouse Simmons” was last seen on 23 November 1912 by Kewaunee Life Saving Station. The vessel was in a deplorable condition and was signalling that she was in serious trouble. Unfortunately, boats sent on a rescue mission failed to find the schooner, which must have sunk in the meantime, taking the entire crew of 16 men with it to the bottom. Some time later a message in a bottle, sent from the deck of the lost vessel, was found:

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“Friday, goodbye. I think we are done for. We lost the lifeboat in the night. We are taking on water heavily. Invald and Steve have been washed off the deck. God help us!”

The wreck of a schooner carrying Christmas trees was found in 1971 by Milwaukee diver Gordon Kent Bellrichard, who was searching for the wreck of another vessel, the steamer “Vernon”, which sank in 1887.

SIMMONS deck cabin crop

Interestingly, most of the cargo that the schooner “Rouse Simmons” carried on board is still in place. Some artifacts have been excavated, including the steering wheel and anchor, and are now housed at the Rogers Street Fishing Village Museum.
Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

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About author

Tomasz Andrukajtis
Editor-in-chief of the DIVERS24 portal and magazine. Responsible for obtaining, translating and developing content. He also supervises all publications. Achived his first diving certification – P1 CMAS, in 2000. Has a degree in journalism and social communication. In the diving industry since 2008.
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