FOR MORE LEGENDS OF MILWAUKEE STORIES, CLICK HERE
The Great Lakes are full of legendary tales of triumph and tragedy, yet few are more enduring than that of the fabled Rousse Simmons, better known as The Christmas Tree Boat. The three mast wooden schooner was built in 1868 and spent most of her career on the lake hauling lumber. By the fall of 1912, the forty four year workhouse was weather worn and leaky. She would soon set sail on an inauspicious final journey that would ensure her place in the collection of holiday tales revisited each year as the icy gales howl across Lake Michigan’s stormy waters to usher in the winter season.
On November 22, 1912, the ship was scheduled to leave Chicago, bound for northern Michigan and a load of Christmas trees. The ship’s captain, and partial owner was Herman Schuenemann, affectionately known as Captain Santa, had worked the last three decades hauling Christmas trees into Chicago, where he sold the evergreens from a dock off the Clark St. Bridge to German immigrants during the holidays. From the onset, there were difficulties with the planned journey.
Co-captain, and co-owner of the ship, Captain Nelson, doubted the Rouse Simmons’ sea-worthiness, but decided to make the last run of the season to honor his commitment to Schuenemann. Nelson’s daughter, Alvida, begged her father not to set sail with the boat. Popular lore suggests her tearful pleading was related to a premonition she had about the fate of that final journey of the year. Despite his daughter’s tears and his own misgivings, Nelson prepared leave with the ship, promising his family it would be his final tree run on the Rouse Simmons. It was later discovered that Schuenemann made the same promise to his own family.
Filled with foreboding, the men prepared to leave Chicago on a Friday, an unlucky day in the eyes of many superstitious mariners. Crews have been known to wait to set sail until one minute after midnight in order avoid this cursed day. Further alarm sounded when it was noted there were an unlucky 13 men on the roster for the journey. Despite the compounded bad luck, the captains pressed on. As the crew loaded on the boat, they noticed that rats were exiting the ship in large numbers. Sailors know that rats fleeing a ship is a bad sign. Rats are great harbingers of danger, as they wriggle into the tightest of areas, and are the first to find leaks and other evidence that the ship was taking on water. As the exodus was observed, the moods of the men further darkened. As their concerns mounted, the crew boarded and set sail for the northern woods.
ENTER OUR HOME & DESIGN AWARDS
We want to see your best work. Architects, interior designers, renovation experts and landscapers: Enter your residential projects in Milwaukee Magazine’s new design competition.
The journey to Michigan was an uneventful one, but then when they reached the shore, the crew again noticed another parade of rats fleeing the ship. Eager to reload the schooner and take advantage of the calm waters, the captains ignored the crew’s reports. Soon, the ship loaded and ready to set sail, yet some of the crew hesitated before reboarding. The ship appeared to be dangerously overloaded and the threat of an incoming storm was in the air. A few men, heeding the warning of the fleeing rats, elected to return to Chicago by rail.
While the exact number is not known, when the loaded ship left the docks, it may have had anywhere between 16 and 23 men onboard. The Rouse Simmons set sail when the skies were clear and the waves calm, but before long, encountered what was later called “the greatest storm of the decade.” Suddenly, the men were battling 65 mph winds accompanied by cold rains that soaked them to the bone as they struggled to keep the schooner afloat. The situation became dire when the temperature dropped, and the rain turned to wet heavy snow that clung to the ship. The men fought 40 foot waves as walls of water crashed upon the deck of the ship. Soon, the boat, and the men, were coated in a shell of ice.
As the desperate Rouse Simmons neared Kewaskum, she sent a distress signal. The struggling boat could be seen from shore, her sails torn and her deck weighted down by ice. A gas powered lifeboat was dispatched to aid the disabled ship. The rescue crew motored to the failing ship, keeping her in their eyeline. Without warning, a snow squall swooped into the area, reducing the visibility in the lifeboat to zero. They estimated they were within 1000 yard of the ship before they lost sight of her. When the storm cleared, the Rouse Simmons had vanished without a trace. The stunned rescue crew returned to shore, alone.
The boat and her crew had disappeared, but traces of the ship continued to appear on Lake Michigan shores. Shortly after the boat sank, a message in a bottle, sealed with a piece of pinewood washed up in Sheboygan. The note, thought to have been written by Captain Nelson reads as follows:
“Friday… everyone goodbye. I guess we are all through. During the night the small boat washed overboard. Leaking bad. Invald and Steve lost too. God help us.”
Beyond that message, the only evidence the ship had ever been there were the evergreens that continued to wash ashore. The green trees, ready for Christmas decorations, were claimed by the townspeople who say that Captain Santa continued his job of delivering trees. When the pines that washed up to shore were no longer green, the townspeople used the wood to create Christmas ornaments.
Interest in the ship was renewed in 1924 when Captain Schuenemann’s wallet was recovered from the lake. The wallet, made of waterproof oilskin, remained water tight and the undamaged contents of the pouch were returned to the man’s widow. As the story was relayed, it was noted with a twinkle in the storyteller’s eye that the name of the fishing boat which recovered Captain Santa’s wallet was Reindeer.
No further trace of the ship was discovered until 1971. A diver found the wreckage of the mysteriously missing ship 59 years after she vanished off the coast of Two Rivers. It was then observed she lost her steering wheel, making it impossible for the crew to sail into the safety of the shore. The diver also noted the good luck horseshoe found on many boats that hung from the cabin wall near the steering wheel was missing one of its nails. Rather than being in the upside-down, u-shaped position that allows the horseshoe to “gather luck,” as if in a bucket, the shoe was facing downwards, all of its luck had, indeed, run out.
The dive might have helped to solve the mystery of what happened to this ship, but legend still clings to this boat. To this day, people still claim to see the Rouse Simmons sailing on moonlit nights. The sightings increase as the calendar nears closer to Christmas. Those who see the ship report that her sails are ripped to tatters and they are wildly flapping in the wind, as if they are under attack from gale-force winds, even on the calmest of nights. Observers watch her sail, and soon she disappears into the mist, once again gone from view.
It’s been said the lake does not give up her dead, and the Christmas Tree Boat was not an exception; no bodies have ever been recovered from the wreck. The widow Schuenemann died in 1933 and is buried at the Arcadia Park Cemetery in Chicago. Next to her tombstone is a simple stone with an evergreen etched in it, an acknowledgement of the fallen captain. Tales persist that those who visit the grave site are met with the overwhelming scent of evergreens, despite there being no pine trees in the area. It is that familiar smell of holidays past that causes some to believe that perhaps Captain Santa did, somehow, make that final journey home.