Captain Santa’s Last Sail: The Mysterious Fate of the Christmas Tree Ship

Maritime archaeologists survey the Rouse Simmons shipwreck on the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Maritime archaeologists survey the Rouse Simmons shipwreck on the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Wisconsin Historical Society, WHS 120449

Once the rats fled the ship, Captain Herman Schuenemann should have considered himself warned.

Schuenemann, known to many Midwesterners as “Captain Santa,” planned to make the 300-mile sail from Thompson’s Harbor on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to Chicago to deliver his annual load of Christmas trees to the city. It was November 1912, and for decades he had sold trees straight from the Clark Street dock with a large sign touting, “Christmas Tree Ship: My Prices Are the Lowest.” Customers could always get a tree at the local train yard—many trees were shipped in by rail back then—but it was hard to argue with the nostalgic charm of a three-masted schooner decked out with wreaths and lights. The Christmas Tree Ship (formally known as the Rouse Simmons) enchanted Chicagoans and became a staple of their yuletide heritage.

Schuenemann moved hordes of the Michigan spruces annually from his dockside location and earned a reputation for generosity by donating trees to the poor. But in 1912, his own wallet may have been tightening. He had filed for bankruptcy a few years earlier and, likely operating under tight margins, he nixed having the 44-year-old Simmons re-caulked for the trip down Lake Michigan that year.

The boat’s seaworthiness didn’t appear to be of much concern to Schuenemann, nor did the bad omen of rats fleeing the ship faze him. Captain Santa would make his annual run to Chi-Town anyway, just in time for the holidays. The city, and presumably his bank account, were depending on it.

A painting of the Christmas Tree Ship in Chicago
Chicago Maritime Museum

The Simmons left Thompson Harbor around 2 p.m. on November 22 with a forest full of spruces blanketing its deck. As it made its way south, the barometer fell and the winds picked up. By 3 p.m. the next day, the ship was reeling on Lake Michigan as it fought gale-force conditions, floundering nose down through pounding surf as it passed the Kewaunee Life Saving Station a few hundred miles north of Chicago. Upon spotting the ship in distress, the station’s keeper called for a motorized lifeboat to assist the struggling vessel.

While help was on its way, things went from bad to worse for Schuenemann and his 16-man crew. According to Tamara Thomsen, a maritime archaeologist with the Wisconsin Historical Society, the crew prepared to set the portside anchor in an attempt to stabilize the vessel from the barreling seas. They pulled the massive anchor chain from its locker and heaved it onto the weather deck. The additional heft made the Simmons top-heavy at the worst possible time.

“Based on its center of gravity and orientation to the wind, it would have taken only a decent-sized wave to bring the ship down,” Thomsen tells Mental Floss.

As the rough seas thrashed on, the anchor, which hung from a support timber on the portside of the boat, went airborne. It flew over the front of the ship as the Simmons bobbed up and down, snagging the bow’s spar along the way and tearing it off. Water in the hold sloshed forward and the Christmas Tree Ship made a nosedive towards the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Meanwhile, the search and rescue mission quickly became futile. The lifeboat crew spent hours circumnavigating the area where the Simmons had first been spotted, but saw no trace of the ship despite the 6-mile visibility on the lake that afternoon. The Christmas Tree Ship, with all 17 hands, had vanished.

Captain Herman Schuenemann (center) standing with two of his crew membersManitowoc County Historical Society

When the ship didn’t arrive on schedule, speculation about its fate grew in the Windy City. A front-page headline from the Chicago American instilled a morsel of hope—“Santa Claus Ship May Be Safe”—but within weeks, waterlogged Christmas trees began washing up on Wisconsin’s coast.

Nearly 60 years later, divers discovered the wreck lying on the bottom of the lake off the coast of Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Most of its hull was covered with mussels, and clusters of trees were still in the ship’s hold—some still hanging on to their needles.

The tragedy has since become one of the great Christmas-time legends of America's maritime past. But what actually happened during the ship’s final moments has been cloaked in mystery, and, as with most legends, separating fact from fiction can be tricky. Many accounts, for example, suggest that heavy ice covering the trees, hull, masts, and sails brought the vessel down. Actual weather reports from that afternoon, however, show that temperatures hadn’t gone below 36˚F—so heavy ice wouldn’t have formed. Another theory suggests a boom supporting one of the sails struck the ship’s wheel during the storm and snapped it off. With no steering, Captain Santa and crew would have obviously been at the mercy of the storm’s fury. However, inspection of the ship’s rudder during a 2006 archaeological survey of the wreck suggests its position was inconsistent with the theory.

The archaeologists did discover, however, that portions of the ship’s deck may have come loose during the storm. Keith Meverden, an archaeologist who worked alongside Thomsen during the survey, says they found salt channels carved into the deck beams. “The salt was used to keep the wooden deck from rotting,” he tells Mental Floss, “but over time they may have corroded the nails.” If the nails were compromised and the deck lifted during the storm, it may have allowed more water into the ship than the pumps could remove.

No one knows for sure what happened, but the archaeologists agree on one thing: The ship was well past its prime by the time it set sail that holiday season.

“Probably the number one factor was that it was an elderly vessel that sat derelict most of the year and hadn’t been well maintained,” says Meverden. “It wasn’t seaworthy enough, and likely just sh*t the bed out in the water.”

The Christmas Tree Ship was gone, but Schuenemann’s family kept the tradition alive in the following years, bringing trees in by schooner and selling them along Chicago’s waterfront. And the vibe lives on today, as the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw hauls its load of trees from northern Michigan to the Chicago Navy Pier each year. The trees are donated to help make Christmas a bit brighter for deserving families throughout the city—a gesture that picks up right where Captain Santa left off.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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Humans First Arrived in North America 30,000 Years Ago, New Studies Suggest

Researcher samples cave sediments for DNA.
Researcher samples cave sediments for DNA.
Devlin A. Gandy

People occupied North America by roughly 11,000 BCE, but the exact timeline of how early humans first arrived on the continent is contested. Two new studies suggest that humans were living in North America as far back as 30,000 years ago—preceding some earlier estimates by more than 15,000 years.

According to the traditional narrative, the first North Americans were big game hunters who crossed a land bridge connecting Asia to North America around 13,000 years ago. They left behind distinct, fluted arrowheads and bone and ivory tools that were dubbed “Clovis” tools. “This narrative, known as ‘Clovis-first,’ was widely accepted for most of the 20th century until new archaeological evidence showed that humans were present in the continent before Clovis,” Lorena Becerra-Valdivia, an archaeological scientist with the Universities of Oxford and New South Wales and co-author of the new studies, tells Mental Floss. “Within academia, an earlier arrival of 16,000-15,000 years ago was generally accepted.”

Her new analysis pushes back that date by several millennia. The study, “The Timing and Effect of the Earliest Human Arrivals in North America,” published in the journal Nature, looks at radiocarbon and luminescence data from Beringia, a region that historically linked Russia and Alaska, and North America. A statistical model built with this data indicates that a significant human population was living on the continent long before the Clovis era. According to the study, these humans were likely present before, during, and after the Last Glacial Maximum—the period when ice sheets covered much of North America 26,000 to 19,000 years ago.

Stone tool found below the Last Glacial Maximum layer.Ciprian Ardelean

These findings also contradict the land bridge theory. Rather than making a straightforward journey from Asia to North America and populating the southern half of the continent as the Clovis people were thought to have done, the first humans may have entered the Americas by traveling down the Pacific Coast. “These are paradigm-shifting results that shape our understanding of the initial dispersal of modern humans into Americas,” Becerra-Valdivia says. “They suggest exciting and interesting possibilities for what likely was a complex and dynamic process.”

The second, related study in Nature, ”Evidence of Human Occupation in Mexico Around the Last Glacial Maximum,” supports this new narrative. In it, researchers from institutes in Mexico, the UK, and other countries share artifacts and environmental DNA uncovered from Chiquihuite Cave—a high-altitude cave in Zacatecas, central Mexico. The tools, plant remains, and environmental DNA collected there paint of picture of human life dating back 13,000 to 30,000 years ago. The evidence shows that the site was more than just a stopping point, and the people living there had adapted to the high altitudes and harsh mountain landscape.

The two studies not only offer insight on when the first North Americans arrived on the continent, but who they were and how they lived. The Americas would have looked a lot different to humans during the Last Glacial Maximum than they did to the Clovis people millennia later. The fact that the first North Americans left behind far fewer artifacts than the Clovis people shows that their populations stayed relatively small. “Humans at Chiquihuite Cave would have faced the harshness of the Last Glacial Maximum, the peak of the last Ice Age, which would have kept their population at a low density,” Becerra-Valdivia says. “Clovis peoples, in contrast, thrived well after the last Ice Age, expanding widely through the continent during a period of globally warmer temperatures. Their life ways and subsistence patterns, therefore, would have been very different.”