The ‘Christmas Tree Boat’ Shipwreck That Devastated 1912 Chicagoans


Marine archaeologists are beginning to understand what really happened to Captain Santa’s ill-fated ship.

THE storm sweeping down from the north had ships running for cover throughout Lake Michigan—among them, a three-masted schooner, the Rouse Simmons, filled with thousands of evergreens. Having harvested its load from the coniferous forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the Rouse Simmons was eagerly anticipated at its regular berth along the Chicago River. But with no sign of the ship by Thanksgiving, five days later, families of the crew began to fear the worst.

Reports soon reached Chicago of a distressed but unidentified schooner, spotted on the 23rd, seen limping its way along the Wisconsin coast. By December 4th, the city woke to heart-wrenching reports of orphaned trees washing up onto lakeside beaches, driving local anxiety to a fever pitch. A crew member—who had refused to board the Simmons in Michigan for its return south—had since traveled to the booming city by train, and contacted the papers with haunting claims that the vessel had been overloaded and unfit to sail: “RATS FLED DOOMED XMAS SHIP,” the banner headline read. Holding out hope that the boat had simply run aground while seeking safe harbor, the search for survivors continued for weeks. A December 5th edition of the Chicago American, however, did not mince words. “LOST HOPE FOR SHIP,” it blared. “SANTA CLAUS BOAT LOST.”

A century later, the Great Lakes are no longer a marine thoroughfare for schooners and barges loaded with Christmas trees. Today, an apocryphal legend of the Simmons endures, a touching maritime tale of adversity and holiday goodwill. Since 2000, the U.S. Coast Guard has followed the Simmons’s path in a modern vessel loaded with evergreens. They do so in honor, not just of the ill-fated schoonerbut of Herman Schuenemann—the enterprising mariner known as “Captain Santa,” who made the “Christmas Tree Ship” a legend.