This feature ran a few years ago on Michigan in Pictures…
Above is a portrait of Elsie Schuenemann at the wheel of the Christmas Ship, near the Clark Street Bridge on the Chicago River in the Loop community area of Chicago, Illinois. The boat carried Christmas trees to Chicago from Michigan. Her father, Captain H. Schuenemann, died when the Rouse Simmons, a ship carrying Christmas trees, sank in 1912.
The trees behind her likely came from the woods of Escanaba. Though the story of Barbara Schuenemann and her three daughters carrying on the tradition of the Christmas Tree Ships has perhaps been a little over-romanticized, there can be little doubt that the Schuenemann family and the many others who participated in the difficult trade of hauling Christmas trees south as the storms of winter closed in were heroes cut from a cloth that isn’t found too often today.
If you’d like to read more about all the Christmas tree ships (there were many more than just the famous Rouse Simmons) we recommend Christmas Tree Ships from Fred Neuschel. He has also written a book called Lives and Legends of the Christmas Tree Ships (available from UM Press). The National Archive also has The Christmas Tree Ship: Captain Herman E. Schuenemann and the Schooner Rouse Simmons that details the Schuenemann’s story which we start below.
Here’s a cool video of diving the Rouse Simmons from Rich Evenhouse:
The Christmas Tree Ship: Captain Herman E. Schuenemann and the Schooner Rouse Simmons
By Glenn V. Longacre
The saga of Herman E. Schuenemann and the Rouse Simmons is a microcosm of Great Lakes maritime history preserved for researchers who visit the National Archives and Records Administrationâ€“Great Lakes Region in Chicago. The original and microfilmed records held in the Great Lakes Region not only document the birth, life, and death of the legendary schooner but also its enigmatic and kind-hearted captain.
The 1870 census reveals that Wisconsin native Schuenemann was born about 1865, into the middle of a growing family of six children in the predominantly German community of Ahnapee, now present-day Algoma, on the shores of Lake Michigan. His oldest brother, August, born in 1853, was the first of the children to make his living on the lake. Herman, however, soon followed in his brother’s footsteps.
In 1868, three years after Schuenemann’s birth, the age of sail on Lake Michigan reached its zenith when more than 1,800 sailing vessels populated the lake. After that year, the number of sailing ships began a decline that lasted until they disappeared almost completely by the late 1920s. The dominant sail-powered vessel on Lake Michigan was the sturdy schooner, built to haul heavy loads out of, and into, shallow harbors. The principal cargo for most schooners on Lake Michigan was lumber, which fed the high demand for building materials in growing urban areas such as Chicago and Milwaukee.
The 1868 peak in sail-powered ships on Lake Michigan also marked the year the Rouse Simmons was launched from Milwaukee’s shipyards. The ship was built by the firm of Allan, McClelland, and Company, one of Milwaukee’s preeminent shipbuilding firms.
Sleek and sturdy, the 123-foot Rouse Simmons was licensed and enrolled on August 27, 1868, at the Port of Milwaukee. The vessel’s managing owner was Royal B. Towslee of Kenosha, Wisconsin, and its first master was Alfred Ackerman. The Rouse Simmons was named after a well-known Kenosha merchant of the same name. A brother, Zalmon Simmons, soon gained fame for his family’s burgeoning mattress company.
In the early 1870s, the Rouse Simmons joined the sizeable shipping fleet of wealthy lumber magnate and philanthropist Charles H. Hackley of Muskegon, Michigan. Hackley’s lumber operations stretched to all corners of Lake Michigan’s coastline. The Rouse Simmons was a workhorse, hauling loads of lumber for Hackley’s fleet from company mills to the various markets around the lake for roughly 20 years. A survey of entrances and clearances from the Records of the U.S. Customs Service for the port of Grand Haven, Michigan, for August 1883, shows that the Rouse Simmons was making almost weekly runs from Grand Haven, most likely with loads of lumber, to the port of Chicago.
Grand Haven’s monthly report on daily entrances and clearances for August 1883 reveal the continued dominance of sailing ships even at that late date. Among the 458 ships that entered the port for the month, 269, or almost 60 percent, were sailing ships, while the remaining 189 were steam-powered. Following the Rouse Simmons’s service with Hackley’s fleet, the schooner changed numerous owners and captains before Schuenemann assumed an interest in the vessel at the beginning of the 20th century.
By the early 1890s, Schuenemann lived in Chicago, and his career as a local merchant and lake captain was well established. On April 9, 1891, he married German-born Barbara Schindel. The 1900 federal census indicates that Barbara and Herman Schuenemann had three daughters during the 1890s: Elsie, born in January 1892, and in October 1898, twins Hazel and Pearl. Barbara learned that being the wife of a lake captain took special qualities. She also realized, as did most wives whose husbands made their living on the Great Lakes, that it was not a matter of if catastrophe would strike, but when.