After a century of darkness, the Christmas Tree Ship still has stories to tell
November 22 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Rouse Simmons, the famous Milwaukee-made Christmas Tree Ship that sailed Lake Michigan delivering trees from the Upper Peninsula to Chicago every holiday season.
It still sits at the bottom of the lake where it sank in 1912 off the coast of Two Rivers, but even after its discovery in 1971, curiosity about the fabled schooner and its fate has only grown.
Author Rochelle Pennington has developed a particular passion for the story of the Rouse Simmons and its charismatic Captain Herman Schuenemann, writing two books and traveling the Midwest recounting their tale.
In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Rouse Simmons' sinking, Pennington will visit the North Point Lighthouse Nov. 14 to retell its story and show off some of the artifacts Lake Michigan has released from its depths over the past 100 years.
"Over the last century, this story has remained in the forefront for several reasons which make it unique," explained Pennington.
"First and foremost, the long period of time that the Schuenemann family had served the citizens of Chicago. They were one of the first. Captain Herman had an older brother, August, who began in the 1870s; Herman came on board in the 1880s when August was lost. When Herman was lost in 1912, his wife carried on, and when his wife finally passed away from old age, the daughters carried on for several years. So, you have a 60-year span of time with the same family.
"I personally fell in love with this story because of all the humanity that it represents," she added. "Within that one story, of course you have Christmas, of course you have tragedy. You have triumph over tragedy with Barbara carrying on ... you have courage, you have kindness, you have generosity ... all of those pieces of the story personally moved me."
Even before he went down with his crew and cargo in 1912, Captain Schuenemann was a living legend.
"The words I love most of all in describing the captain – even by the Chicago press, by the Chicago Tribune and other such newspapers – include 'the always-friendly captain,' 'the jovial captain,'" said Pennington.
"The Christmas Tree Ship was quite a place. There was a real nostalgia connected to this ship in particular because the captain wanted you to climb on board and shop right off the ship. These old ships truly meant something to him, and he hoped they would mean something to other people, too."
Schuenemann also made a name for himself through his many generous acts, from inviting customers to dine with him and his crew aboard the schooner to giving away free Christmas trees to those who couldn't afford one.
"Now to this day, every year the Coast Guard goes to the Upper Peninsula in Michigan and members voluntarily use their time to harvest trees up there, just like the captain would have, and then they bring their ship down Lake Michigan into Navy Pier in Chicago, and on one stop they give every tree away free to needy families in the spirit of the captain from long ago," said Pennington.
Pennington's two books, "The Christmas Tree Ship: The Story of Captain Santa" and "The Historic Christmas Tree Ship: A True Story of Faith, Hope and Love," detail the life of Captain Schuenemann and the history of the Rouse Simmons through historical records amassed over years of work.
Her research also included firsthand accounts from surviving members of the Schuenemann family and divers like Kent Bellrichard, who was the first to discover the shipwrecked remains.
"My intention was solely to do only the short version of the story, that initial book," she explained. "But, when I started doing my research and started uncovering all those needles in the haystack – all those newspaper clippings that existed, all those stories inside an individual person here and person there that were only in one place – I fell in love with what I call the 'hundred stories within the story.'
"This is a complicated story, and pieces, still all these years later, are coming forward. The captain may have gone to the bottom of the lake, but everything he believed in stayed alive on the shore. With every breath that speaks his name, with every tree handed off the new Christmas Ship, his spirit lives on."
Pennington will explore the past and present of the Christmas Tree Ship Wednesday, Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. at the North Point Lighthouse in Lake Park. Her program will feature artifacts recovered from the ship, in addition to little-known details about the ship, its building in Milwaukee, the captain, his family and the clues washed ashore over the decades.
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