Wednesday, November 23, 2016

November 23, 1912 -- Last Sighting of the Christmas Tree Ship

Captain Herman Schuenemann (Center) with His Trees
November 23, 1912 – The Rouse Simmons, Chicago’s “Christmas tree ship,” is last seen between Kewaunee and Two Rivers, Wisconsin with distress flags flying. The owner of the ship, Herman Schuenemann, began the business with his brother in 1885.  After his brother was lost when one of their ships foundered went down off Glencoe in 1898, Schuenemann got to work at lowering the cost of the business, sailing farther and farther north where he could buy trees more cheaply and establishing a market on the southwest corner of the Clark Street Bridge at which he could sell the trees directly from the deck of the ship. Schuenemann was an experienced sailor and businessman who had sailed on the annual Christmas tree voyages on at least five ships over the years, but cost cutting may have been his undoing.  The Rouse Simmons was re-caulked after the 1911 trip, but in 1912 the owner skipped the operation.  The weight of the 5000 trees above and below deck far exceeded recommendations for a voyage at that time of the year, and when an early storm moved in early in the morning of November 23, it was too much.  The wet trees on deck began to ice over, and the ship, riding low in the water, was no match for the forces of nature.  A message in a bottle that washed up sometime after the ship foundered read, “Friday . . . everybody, goodbye.  I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat washed overboard.  Leaking bad.  Invalid and Steve lost too.  God help us.”  Sixteen men and one woman were lost when the ship went down 30 miles south of Ahnapee, Wisconsin, the town in which Captain Schuenemann was born.

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