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QUESTIONS FOR RADIO, TELEVISION
Rochelle M. Pennington, author
Christmas Tree Ship: The Story of Captain Santa
Historic Christmas Tree Ship: A True Story of Faith, Hope and Love
Can you tell our listeners
a brief summary of the Christmas Tree Ship
True story, one
of the most loved legends of the Great Lakes.
The story centers
on Captain Herman Schuenemann who delivered Christmas trees in the late
1800s and early 1900s on the shores of Lake Michigan.
The captain was
nicknamed Captain Santa because he gave free trees away to orphanages,
poor families, and churches.
The captain delivered
trees for 25 years (from the 1880s until 1912). He was caught in “The
Great Storm of 1912” with a ship full of Christmas trees on Lake Michigan
and the vessel went to the bottom. Everyone on board was lost.
wife, Barbara, and their three daughters carried on for over 20 years
in honor of Captain Santa, and in the spirit of everything he believed
Over the past 100
years, the story has been the subject of paintings, poems, songs, a
stage musical performed across the nation every year (The Christmas
Schooner), and four television specials featured on The Weather
Channel, The Travel Channel, The Outdoor Channel,
and The History Channel. In addition, the Great Lakes
Coast Guard began sailing a “new” Christmas Ship ten years ago in
memory of the original vessel. The Coast Guard loads one of its
vessels with Christmas trees and sails the ship down Lake Michigan into
Chicago the first weekend of December each year. All of the trees on
board are given away free to needy families.
The story is remembered
today because it exemplifies the best of humanity. At the heart
of the story we find courage, generosity, devotion, and faith.
What are some of the
ties to communities surrounding Lake Michigan?
The cargo of trees
was always destined for the Clark Street Bridge in Chicago.
lived on Clark Street with his family.
supplied trees each Christmas to many businesses in Chicago including
Marshall Fields, Boston Store, Illinois Bell & Telephone Company,
and City Hall.
The Mayor of the
city bought his Christmas tree each year from the Schuenemann family,
as did the Fire Dept Chief and the Police Chief.
There are several
surviving quotations regarding the importance of Captain Schuenemann
to Christmastime in Chicago a century ago including: “Christmas didn’t
arrive in Chicago until Captain Schunemann’s ship docked at the Clark
Street Bridge.” Another quote is: “Captain Schuenemann and
his ship were as much a part of Christmas in Chicago as Santa Claus.”
The City of Chicago
erected its first municipal Christmas tree in 1913. The tree was erected
as a memorial to Captain Schuenemann. 100,000 people were
present on Christmas Eve afternoon in 1913 when Mayor Harrison lit the
tree and dedicated it to the memory of Captain Schuenemann.
gravesite is located in Chicago at the Acacia Park Cemetery. A lone
Christmas tree is carved between the names of Herman and Barbara. It
represents their common purpose.
Charles Vickery, recognized as one of the foremost nautical painters
in the world, painted several masterpieces of the Christmas Tree Ship
during his lifetime. He lived in
La Grange, Illinois.
last surviving grandson, Dr. William Ehling, lives in Streator, Illinois.
The Great Lakes
Coast Guard’s present-day cargo of trees, given in honor of Captain
Santa, is delivered to Navy Pier in Chicago each Christmas.
The ship was built
in Milwaukee in 1868.
The ship was nicknamed
the Christmas Tree Ship, but the vessel’s christened name was the
Rouse Simmons. The ship was named for a Kenosha, Wisconsin
merchant, Rouse Simmons, who went on to found the Simmons Mattress Factory,
one of Wisconsin’s oldest manufacturing firms.
was born and raised in Algoma, Wisconsin, 25 miles from Green Bay.
Wisconsin’s oldest winery is located in Algoma. The winery has been
bottling a commemorative Christmas Tree Ship wine for the past decade
in honor of their famous native son.
The shipwreck site
is located off the shore of Two Rivers (between Green Bay and Milwaukee).
The Two Rivers area is known as “The Graveyard of the Lake” because
of the large concentration of shipwrecks in this vicinity.
The shipwreck site
is one of the most popular dive sites on Lake Michigan because the ship
is still loaded with its Christmas trees.
The anchor to the
ship was raised in the 1970s and is on permanent display at the entrance
to the Milwaukee Yacht Club near the downtown area. It is the
largest artifact raised from the vessel.
The second largest
artifact, the captain’s wheel, came up in fishing nets in 1999 and
is on permanent display at the Roger’s Street Fishing Village Museum
in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
The State of Wisconsin
erected a Wisconsin historical marker in Two Rivers on November 18,
2009 honoring the ship and its captain.
The Pier Wisconsin
nautical museum in Milwaukee built an exact replica of the Christmas
Tree Ship in the 1990s and uses it as a “floating classroom” to
teach people about the historical importance of schooners in our nation’s
past. The replica vessel is named the Denis Sullivan,
and the ship sails throughout the Great Lakes and the Caribbean Sea.
harvested his trees in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan annually.
The “new” Christmas
ship is loaded each year by the Coast Guard in Cheboygan, Michigan.
one of the wealthiest lumber barons on the Great Lakes in the 1800s,
owned the Rouse Simmons for the longest period of time.
He was a resident of Muskegon, Michigan. The ship spent the majority
of its life in Muskegon.
It was believed
that the wreckage from the ship washed ashore at the Ludington State
Park in Michigan during the 1950s. This was disproved in 1971
when the entire vessel was found.
The State of Michigan
erected a Michigan historical marker in Thompson, Michigan on October
21, 2006 honoring the ship and its captain.
Was the ship ever found?
The vessel was found
in 1971 by a Milwaukee diver, Kent Bellrichard. Mr. Bellrichard
was nicknamed “The Jacques Cousteau of the Great Lakes” because
of the large number of shipwrecks he located.
The ship was missing
for almost 60 years and was eventually located in approximately 170
feet of water.
the vessel “The Ghost of Christmas Past.”
The ship is still
loaded with Christmas trees today. The trees are now nicknamed
“skeleton trees,” “bald trees,” or “Christmas poles”
(if only the trunk remains).
Were any of the artifacts
from the vessel raised?
The ship’s anchor
was raised in the 1970s and is on permanent display at the Milwaukee
Yacht Club. The captain’s wheel was tangled in fishermen’s
nets in 1999 and placed in the Roger’s Street Fishing Village Museum
in Two Rivers, Wisconsin. It was missing for 87 years.
Many artifacts were
raised and placed on permanent display at various museums.
The cost to raise
the entire vessel in 1971 would have totaled in excess of one million
dollars. This was never done.
Many of the original
trees raised were carved into ornaments and bookmarks.
Rats deserted the
ship; the vessel left on a Friday (a bad omen); 13 men were on board;
horseshoe; premonitions; the vessel is called Lake Michigan’s “Flying
Dutchman” because it is said that the ghost ship rises from its watery
grave every Christmas, and is still trying to deliver its cargo of trees.
Sightings have occurred on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and November
23 (the anniversary date of the ship’s loss).
Can you tell us about
the specific clues that washed up during the past century besides the
Trees washed ashore
– thousands! These trees were so preserved because of
the frigid waters at the bottom of the lake that if a tree washed up
in November or December in the 1920s (or even the 1930s!) you
could take the tree home and use it as your Christmas tree that year.
A wooden suitcase/trunk
belonging to a crew member washed ashore.
wallet (filled with newspaper clippings and Captain Schuenemann’s
personal business card) was found in April of 1924 after being submerged
for over 12 years. Everything inside the wallet was perfectly
preserved because the wallet had been placed inside a waterproof sailor’s
packet. Captain Santa’s wallet was found by another captain,
and the name of his ship was The Reindeer. TRUE!
A lightbulb from
the shipwreck site surfaced when divers were moving debris on the Christmas
Tree Ship. The bulb was not shattered from the pressurized depth,
which was very unusual. The bulb had been underwater for 59 years
and it still lit!
Can you please tell our
listeners about your program (Date, Time, Location)?