Arwen's meanderings

Hi everyone and welcome to my dinghy cruising blog about my John Welsford designed 'navigator' named Arwen. Built over three years, Arwen was launched in August 2007. She is a standing lug yawl 14' 6" in length. This blog records our dinghy cruising voyages together around the coastal waters of SW England.
Arwen has an associated YouTube channel so visit to find our most recent cruises and click subscribe.
On this blog you will find posts about dinghy cruising locations, accounts of our voyages, maintenance tips and 'How to's' ranging from rigging standing lug sails and building galley boxes to using 'anchor buddies' and creating 'pilotage notes'. I hope you find something that inspires you to get out on the water in your boat. Drop us a comment and happy sailing.
Steve and Arwen

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

The last Christmas Tree ship of the Great lakes!

The Sailing of the Rouse Simmons

“Sight of the little schooner brought joy and gladness to the hearts of hundreds and thousands. The arrival of the ship at Chicago, with its trees lashed to its masts, was a happy traditional occasion, marking the start of the Yule season… The owner of the Christmas Tree Ship was as much loved by his crew as he was by the thousands of children he made happy at about this time of year.”

Manitowoc Herald

November 24, 1962

While it was nothing but a weary old lumber schooner, the “Christmas Tree Ship” was a Chicago institution. To area families, its arrival signified the beginning of the Christmas Season. Each year just after Thanksgiving, the ship would make its journey from the Far North piled high with wreaths and freshly-cut pines—delivering its precious cargo to eager turn-of-the-century Chicagoans at a dock near the Clark Street bridge.

In approximately 1885 August and his brother Herman Schuenemann moved to Chicago to seek out their fortune. Chicago’s Harbor was one of the busiest in the world at this time with over 20,000 vessels entering and leaving annually. As competition was fierce, the brothers became excellent businessmen as well as sailors. Although they made a relatively good living, two-thirds of their annual income was generated between Thanksgiving and Christmas with the sale of trees

The Captain in the centre with fellow sailors

On August 15, 1868, the Milwaukee Sentinel announced the launching of a new sailing vessel built in one of the city’s local shipyards. The schooner, christened Rouse Simmons, launched from the shipyard of Allan, McClelland & Company had a length overall of 127 feet; a beam, 27 feet 6 inches; and a depth 8 feet 1 inch. She weighed around about 220 tons. Described as having a sharp entrance and beautiful run and built of the finest timbers ever, her cost when fully completed and ready for sea was $17,000. She carried three masts, was fore-and-aft rigged, with a square sail on the foremast.

The Rouse Simmons
Copyright: Charles

Her owners were Royal B. Tousley and Captain Akerman, of Kenosha, the latter of whom commanded her. She was designed for the lumber trade and plied between Manistee and Chicago. However, she also had capacity for 16,000 bushels of grain. She was then one of the largest boats on the Great Lakes and was the pride of its builder. Later, as larger and faster boats were built, the Rouse Simmons was used for the transportation of iron and copper ores, lumber, piling and rough stock of all descriptions.
Although the majority of the ship’s life was spent hauling lumber, the vessel became tragically remembered for its last cargo - Christmas trees. On December 6, 1912, the Milwaukee Sentinel reported that the schooner had gone missing in “the vicinity of Twin River Point” – an area that had “long been considered one of the most dangerous portions of the lake, having earned through its many wrecks and wild waters the name of ‘the graveyard of the lake". On November 23, 1912, Captain Herman Schuenemann had been transporting a Yuletide cargo of evergreens with the Simmons when the ship was caught in a ferocious storm and subsequently sunk.

Copyright: Wisconsin

The Schuenemann family were famous in the area. They were one of the first merchants, as well as one of the last to carry Christmas trees. Their involvement in the Christmas tree industry lasted nearly a half century.
For more than twenty-five years Captain Schuenemann had operated boats in the tree trade on the lake… the average load for the schooner was between three hundred and four hundred tons of trees. The big trees were loaded on deck while the wreath material and small trees were put into the hold. 

Elise, the Captn's daughter at the helm of the Rouse Simmons

The Simmons was a symbol of a more peaceful, innocent time before World War I when the horse and the sailing vessel gave their slow, gentle imprint to the tempo of life. Crowds came aboard to pick over the trees. The sounds of excitement and laughter mingled with the clop-clop of horses across the bridge and the pleasant smell of evergreens. It was a pleasant way to end the shipping season – surrounded by happy families a short ride from the Schuenemann home…It was the children that made it so joyous. They loved the Christmas Tree Ship as much as the Schuenemanns loved having them aboard. Yes, it was a good end for a hard summer on the lake.

Despite the warm glow of Yuletide feelings, life for the Schuenemann brothers was for the most part hard work and danger. But hard work and danger were things sailors had been used to since they first put to sea. Besides, it was their life. The brothers would buy old lumber schooners for a song and wring the last bit of life out of them, nosing into every port along the lake, seeking cargo. It was a chancy business made even chancier by the tempestuous nature of the lake, where storms were universally feared. No one knew better than Herman Schuenemann how dangerous late-season voyages on Lake Michigan could be…Had the Rouse Simmons been anything other than the Christmas Tree Ship, her loss probably would never have been remembered. Half a dozen other ships were missing after the same storm that claimed the Simmons, and none of their names are remembered. But because the Simmons was something special to the people of Chicago, the Christmas Tree Ship earned her place in legend and history. For the sentimental, there is the thought that men were willing to risk – and lose – their lives to make Christmas brighter. To historians, the Christmas Tree Ship symbolizes the end of an era – the death of commercial sailing on the Great Lakes. World War I was about to begin, and steam alone could keep pace with the demands of a nation preparing for war…Perhaps it was best that Captain Schuenemann, his crew, and the Rouse Simmons died the way they did. In a few short years the world would know that there were worse ways for men and ships to die…

…The world was changing. Although schooners had dominated the waters for a time, that time had passed. By 1912 few remained, and those that did were looked upon as insignificant ships hauling insignificant cargos. One of the cargos hauled by the last schooners afloat on the waters were Christmas trees - a cargo that couldn’t be damaged if hauled in a leaking, old vessel.


The information provided above is a partial excerpt from the book THE HISTORIC CHRISTMAS TREE SHIP: A True Story of Faith, Hope and Love by Rochelle Pennington.

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