The Christmas Tree Ship

Captain SchuenemannIt was when Captain Santa docked in the Chicago River that the Christmas season really began. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, one of our St. Pauls members, Captain Herman Schuenemann, the skipper of the Rouse Simmons, sailed his ship-load of evergreens to Chicago, across the dangerous winter waters of Lake Michigan. Our church newsletter, the St. Pauls Bote, reports in 1898: “We want to draw our readers’ attention to the largest and best store of Christmas trees, garlands, wreaths and similar items that is to be found in Chicago. It is at the southwest corner of the Clark Street Bridge where Captain Schuenemann has docked his ship. You should visit Captain Schuenemann and give him kind regards from St. Pauls.”

Indeed, Captain Schuenemann was kind to St. Pauls, and showed a deep generosity of spirit. He often would give his trees away to folks who couldn't afford them. In 1906, the St. Pauls Bote reports: “Captain Schuenemann, the old mariner, who gets within an ace of being shipwrecked every year when he sails away to Santa Claus’ Land to get a ship full of Christmas Trees, what did he do? Well, he sent a wagonload of trees, and wreaths, and festoons to the church, the parsonage, and the Uhlich Children’s Orphan Asylum. And when a meek little man went down and asked for the bill, Captain Schuenemann roared down Clark Street like a foghorn: ‘blow the bill!’ So that’s what became of the bill. It’s blowed!’”

Each year when the captain and his crew arrived in Chicago at the end of November, he was assisted by his wife Barbara and daughters Elsie, Pearl and Hazel, the apples of their father’s eye. In November of 1912, however, the Rouse Simmons didn’t dock at the southwest corner of the Clark Street Bridge.

Pastor Rudolph John writes in the December 1912 Bote. “It is indeed a hard and heartbreaking task to write of Captain Schuenemann, our good, faithful brother, who for so many years has been with us in our work and faith. For almost thirty years this good man, sturdy, honest, faithful, has sailed the waters of the Great Lakes, in summertime in the lumber trade, and in November, braving many an angry storm and rough sea to bring great cargoes of trees and branches and red berries to make the children’s holiday brighter and happier. And this time he has not returned.” On November 23, 1912, the Rouse Simmons went down in the waters off of Tow Rivers, Wisconsin and all on board drowned.

The Story of Captain Santa might have ended there, were it not for some strong women. A difficult year of grief and hardship followed for Barbara, Elsie, Pearl and Hazel. But in the summer of 1913, Barbara headed to Michigan and supervised the loading of a shipment of Christmas trees onto her own Christmas Ship. In an interview with the Chicago Daily News of November 1913 she said, “The Rouse is gone – but Christmas will find the survivors on deck, and Chicago will have her Christmas trees as long as the Schuenemanns last.”

Twenty years later, the St. Pauls Bote reports in December 1932: “As you pass down Clark Street and near the bridge, you will find a great array of Christmas trees in the impoverished warehouse and on the outside of it you will be greeted with the cordial smile of a dear old mother. A little while ago she was so deathly ill that we believed her hours on earth were counted – but here she is, a living symbol of God’s eternal grace. You all know her. It is good Mother Schuenemann, the widow of ill-fated Captain Schuenemann, who never returned to the shores, but with his great cargo of Christmas trees went down into the deep in that terrible night of storm. And since then Mother Schuenemann has felt the urge to ‘carry on.’ If is our prayerful hope that all our families in the church may be able to enjoy the happiness in their homes which the Christmas trees bring to old and young. As we place upon them the lights, let it be remembered that they are symbolic of him who came unto us at Bethlehem to be the ‘Light of the World.’”

You can read a full account of "Captain Santa" in Rochelle Pennington's book The Historic Christmas Tree Ship, from which this story is excerpted.