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Xmas Tree Ship
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Monday, 24 January 2005

On December 1, this year - a cold and snowy morning - the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw entered Chicago Harbor, with 250 Christmas trees tied down on its deck.

The Great Lakes largest icebreaker was playing the role of "Christmas Tree Ship" and the trees - purchased through private and corporate donations - were to be distributed to local families who would otherwise have gone without.

The Mackinaw is a modern reincarnation of an old seasonal tradition, when Christmas Trees were bought to Chicago by boat. Once tied up at Navy Pier, the crew and volunteers decorated the cutter from stem to stern in lights and trees, ready for the lighting ceremony later that evening.

The cast of the Bailiwick Theater’s production of The Christmas Schooner sang ,"Merry Christmas Chicago, the Christmas ship is here" then joined James D. Hull, commander of the 9th Coast Guard District, local folk artists and dignitaries as the ship’s bell was rung and the ship lit.

There have been many Christmas Tree ships, before Mackinaw, but none is better known than the ill fated Rouse Simmons, about which a whole series of fictional and non-fictional tales have been written, turning the schooner into a legend. We have studied contemporary accounts of the Rouse Simmons and her sometime master Herman Schuenemann and found the real story is more interesting and poignant than the romanticised versions, which began to evolve in the days after she was lost and have never ceased to proliferate.

August Schuenemann was the family breadwinner, when the exceptionally hard winter of 1874-75 threatened the health of everyone in the Great Lakes community. That year, his  father, Frederick – who had erysipelas – lost most of his sight and, unable to support his family, was forced to accept money from the county poor fund and his sister, Mary, was committed to a mental asylum. 

Schuenemann was working for a schooner owner, called Johnny Doak, who had taken a liking to the young man. Calling Doak “schooner owner” may conjure up an image of wealth, but is far from the truth. Doak owned a poor ship, called the Emily Doak, and made a precarious living hauling stone that he picked up from the shore, taking cargos from wrecks and using every opportunity he could to earn a few dollars. Nevertheless, there was good demand for stone and it was time of relative prosperity for Doak and those who worked for him.

In 1875, Doak came across an old schooner, W. H. Hinsdale, lying near Milwaukee, in poor condition and offered August her captaincy and a share in her. The Hinsdale was lengthened and repaired, at Ahnapee, and, in 1876, took 1,300 Christmas trees to Racine, Wisconsin. Less than a year later, August lost her on rocks, approaching St. Josephs, Michigan.

Model of scow, showing typical rig. Courtesy of Lake Erie

Islands Historical Society Museum. Photographer John Rees.

In summer 1879, Ahnapee sawmill owner Charles Fellows had trouble with the crew of his scow schooner, Sea Star, and replaced every man and make August her captain Fellows’ business was well set up, so this little ship – lengthened and rebuilt in 1880 – was far better maintained than the Hinsdale. Her main work was carrying timber for the sawmill, but there are records of her carrying Christmas trees to Chicago in 1883 and ’84. Sadly, she was badly damaged, in 1885, when the steamer Peerless hit her and, having been sold and never properly repaired, she was wrecked at Clay Banks the next year.

In 1886, August again took Christmas trees to Chicago, this time as master of the Ole Olson, and then became a ship owner again. The 60 ton scow schooner, Supply, was sold to unknown Ahnapee interests – almost certainly the Schuenemann brothers - by the US Marshall, after her captain had defaulted on a shipyard bill. August is recorded as selling her in 1889, having carried Christmas trees to Chicago the two previous years, and buying the Josephine Dresden for $1400. The brothers must have lurched between being close to the breadline and relative affluence, judging by the varying quality of their boats, which appeared in one name or another and sometimes under a spouse’s name, presumably to guard against the fleet being taken in case of debt.

August’s next ship was the old Seaman, a 120 foot long, 180 ton boat built in 1848. In 1895, she lost her mast – no doubt through rigging weakened by age and poor maintenance - in a storm on Lake Michigan, but August used her to carry Christmas trees that year, by having her towed from Sturgeon Bay to Chicago by a steam ship. She was rigged again and, despite being damaged by a storm next year, August again took her to Sturgeon Bay for Christmas trees, before abandoning her. At this time, Herman appears to have been mainly handling what could be termed the onshore aspect of the business, arranging cargos and overseeing business ventures, which ranged from cafés to grocery shops. It was, probably, he who changed the Schuenemann style of doing Christmas tree business.

Until then, the brothers had mainly sold trees to retail outlets, but from 1896 they sold direct from the ships, decking them out with lights and notices saying “Lowest prices”. It was a better business than using middlemen, but it was still risky. If they got into Chicago when demand was brisk they could make excellent money, if they were late the trees could hardly be given away. Sometimes an extra ship was hired, like the Grand Haven rigged schooner Mystic, a vessel of 160 tons, but she went ashore on Pilot Island, outward bound to collect the trees and Herman had to hire the M. Capron to collect the trees. (A Grand Haven rigged schooner was a converted three master, with the centre mast removed and a staysail on the mizzen.)

The Schuenemann Christmas Tree Ships were far from being gracious, well found ships, like this.

Rouse Simmons portrayed here by artist Charles Vickery.

Reproduced by kind permission of The Clipper Ship Gallery.http://www.charlesvickery. com

In 1897, the brothers acquired the largest ship they were ever to own, the 231 ton Mary L. Collins which had first been wrecked at Sister Bay in 1883 and, again, on South Manitou Island, ten years later. On each occasion she was written off, but subsequently salvaged and repaired. This was another $1400 purchase, suggesting that this was a period of greater prosperity, but that could not have lasted long, for the next buy was a very different vessel.

The increasing use of steam ships was an opportunity for August and Herman Schuenemann. It meant that a small old boat, needing work, could be bought for next to nothing, often at a US Marshall's sale where boats were sold to clear their owners’ debts. This meant that the brothers could usually find a ship to buy, even in the bad times, and it is how they came to own the 55 ton S. Thal, which had been in the hands of the US Marshall for a dept of $60, owed to her cook in wages, when George Hanley bought her. She lay in Sturgeon Bay, until August Schuenemann arrived to buy Christmas trees with no ship to carry them back in, then changed hands for $250, after August had borrowed $100 from the local bank and persuaded a store to give $50 credit. No-one else had wanted the Thal, which is a good indication of her condition, but she might have made it to Chicago if she hadn’t run into a particularly bad storm not far from that port. Her   precise fate is something of a mystery. She was seen anchoring off Glencoe on November 9, the next day she had gone and it was assumed she’d got underway. Nothing was ever seen of the crew again.

A year later, Herman lost the Mary L. Collins and her load of Christmas tree, when she was driven ashore. He spent time and money trying to get her off but failed and, from then on, his Christmas tree trade seems to have been in boats, which were mostly near hulks that did nothing for the rest of the year. Typical of them was the 210 ton George L. Wren, whose rigging and hull were described as “a sorry sight” when she went to Manistique for trees, in 1906.

The Rouse Simmons sailing into Chicago, laden with Christmas trees, by Charles Vickery.

There is nothing to suggest that the 42 year old, 205 ton, 123 foot Rouse Simmons was in better shape, when Herman first leased her for the Christmas tree trade in 1910. In fact, she would have almost certainly sunk the previous year, but for assistance from the car ferry Grand Haven. The ferry had been en route from Grand Haven to Milwaukee, when the Rouse Simmons was seen, in near sinking condition and flying a distress signal. The ferry’s master went to her assistance and managed to get a line on her and tow her to Milwaukee.

The schooner Rouse Simmons was lost, with all hands, off Two Rivers point, at around 4 pm on November 23, 1912 and the media started the legends, which continue to this day. Her story is not that of a benevolent and affluent Father Christmas, going down with his fine ship. It is just one part of a story of men struggling to create a better life, by knowingly risking their lives in weary old wrecks.

So, dont think of her as “THE Christmas Tree Ship”, spare a thought for the hundreds of men who took appalling risks, in the dozens of once proud, schooners that became ‘Christmas Tree Ships’ and delivered trees all around the Great Lakes.  

Marian Martin

Last Updated ( Monday, 24 January 2005 )
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