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Ethelyn Pearson

The Christmas tree ship

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Ethelyn Pearson

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In 1868 in Milwaukee, Allen and Company built a schooner, naming it "Rouse Simmons" after a rich businessman. It was purchased by Charles H. Hackley of Muskegon, Mich., to haul lumber. It took its place among the Hackley ships that crisscrossed the big lake up and down the coastline.

The Rouse soon became the workhorse of the fleet, hauling lumber from company mills to other ports around the lake for 20 years. It made weekly runs from Grand Haven as far as Chicago.

The Hackley schooner was sold seven times. Schooners were called tramp ships. Herman Schuenenmann bought the Rouse Simmons in 1910, the eighth time she changed hands. Captain Charles Nelson of Chicago owned the remaining shares.

The Schuenenmann borthers, Herman and August, had been selling Christmas trees in Chicago for a dozen years. August died in November of 1898 aboard the S. Thal, a 52-ton, two-masted schooner when it sank in a storm near Glencoe, Ill.

While many rival traders had sold to wholesalers and local grocers, Schuenenmann sold directly to Chicago residents at dockside by Clark Street bridge. By cutting out the middleman, the trees could be sold cheaply while still making a profit. A slogan for the business was "Christmas Ship: My prices are the lowest," with electric Christmas lights and a tree atop the main mast. Schuenenmann gave needy families trees. He was known as Captain Santa.

Each year Schuenenmann loaded the schooner with more than 5,500 trees. He planned to make the week-long trip to Chicago. Miserable weather kept his competitors from traveling far from home. Deep fluffy snow covered tree farms. With fewer trees, the price could be higher.

Most years November was unpredictable and stormy, but on this 1913 November there still hadn't been a violent storm on the Great Lakes. The season for trips for the Rouse Simmons were about to be over and a good thing, sailors said. Many other ships and schooners were already laid up for the winter.

Some sailors refused to board the ship, recalling the year before when the schooner had been towed into port in Grand Haven after found riding low in the water. It had not been recaulked and it was leaking. On Nov. 22 when sailors saw rats running from the ship in port, they refused to go aboard. Rats leaving a ship is a bad omen.

On Nov. 23, life-saving crews from a watching station saw a three-mast ship laboring in stiff northwest winds in heavy seas. Distress flags were out. A life-saving crew was sent from Two Rivers. They searched the sea for many hours but the Rouse Simmons and all her crew were already resting on the bottom of the lake.

In 1971 a diver found her resting upright in 170 feet of water at 34 degrees. The Captain's wallet, wrapped in oilskin, came up in a net unharmed and dry. A light bulb floating still lit. Pine trees were lashed on the deck, some still in good shape.

Forensic study of the wreck showed the ship was sailing for shelter when it suddenly sank. The Rouse Simmons was overloaded and ready for the welding torches. Dry, the trees did not weigh much. Once seas washed over them and ice formed, their weight sunk the ship. Her anchor stands at the door of the Milwaukee Yacht Club.

The Rouse Simmons sunk 100 years ago this Christmas. The Schuenenmann family still sends Christmas trees to Milwaukee, by train.

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