‘Christmas Tree Ship’ sinking recalled


TWO RIVERS, Wis. — An eastern Wisconsin fishing village is hosting a centennial celebration in honor of a schooner that sank in Lake Michigan exactly 100 years ago, killing everyone aboard.

The Rouse Simmons was carrying Christmas trees from Michigan to Illinois on Nov. 23, 1912, when frigid swells caused the vessel to capsize off Rawley Point in Two Rivers.

Video: Rouse Simmons - 100 years later

Knowing that death was imminent, Capt. Herman Schuenemann frantically scribbled his last known words — a plea for God to spare the lives of his crew and himself.

Captain Schuenemann was a beloved figure who for 13 years delivered his cargo of Christmas trees from Thompson, Mich., to Chicago, according to a report in the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter. The people of Chicago were so grateful for his trips that they nicknamed him “Captain Santa” and his ship “The Christmas Tree ship.”

To honor the lives lost, the Rogers Street Fishing Village in Two Rivers is hosting a centennial celebration today and Saturday. Plans call for a musical performance and a re-enactment of ship officials distributing Christmas trees.

The Schuenemann family’s legacy began with the captain’s brother, August, who began shipping Christmas trees in 1876, said Rochelle Pennington, the Kewaskum author of The Historic Christmas Tree Ship.

August's ship, the S.Thal, sank in November, 1898, and Herman carried on the tradition from then until his death 14 years later.

“Remarkably, despite his brother’s death, and despite the ever-present danger of sailing November’s stormed-tossed waters, Capt. Herman summoned the courage to load another cargo of evergreens that very same year,” Ms. Pennington said.

A number of omens foreshadowed the sinking and scared off the original crew, said Maggie Becker-Koeppe. The chairman of the Centennial Commemoration said the ship sailed out on a Friday, which was considered bad luck, and rats were seen fleeing the ship.

Undaunted, Captain Schuenemann found a new crew and continued with the trip.

None of the new crew members logged his name, so no one knew the exact death toll.