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Captain Herman Schuenemann was not as jovial as usual as he lowered the evergreens into the hold of the grand but aging schooner Rouse Simmons in a small harbor in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
It was late November of 1912, and the legendary “tree captain” and his crew of 16 had just five days to run the length of Lake Michigan and still reach Chicago by Thanksgiving. There, a loyal crowd of families and merchants would be waiting for his arrival and the festive cargo he’d been hauling for 25 years. He had not yet disappointed them.
His nickname was “Santa” among the local children, but Schuenemann was no doubt thinking about money as well as holiday spirit. The tree captains of the Great Lakes made a living by sailing inexpensive old boats—boats others had deemed un-seaworthy—well into the stormy winter season on the lake. With a high demand for the trees, Herman could make three times as much as he’d invest in the harvesting, crew salaries and charter fees and even double his annual income between Christmas and New Year’s. And facing a lawsuit over an unpaid debt this year, he needed to squeeze every penny he could out of this voyage.
But the fate of his brother, August, couldn’t have been far from his mind when Herman made a fateful decision that day and yelled to his crew, “keep ‘em coming,” until the schooner was packed with its biggest—and heaviest—load ever: some 10,000 trees.
August Schuenemann had miscalculated the risks back in 1898, when he sailed a rickety $250 boat with a load of 3,500 trees and in a gale was thrown against the shore and killed. That was the only year Herman had stayed behind, and only because his twin girls had just been born.
But Herman took yet another risk in 1912, when he opted not to re-caulk his aging vessel. He even sailed against the advice of a loyal crew member, who said he’d had a premonition of trouble. No one knows just what he was weighing when, as lore has it, he simply replied: “There are children in Chicago waiting for Christmas trees.”
The ship left port on a gray but calm day and wasn’t spotted until the next afternoon when the lake got suddenly rough. At about 3 p.m., the Rouse Simmons was spotted by a ferry boat about five miles from Two Rivers, Wisconsin, with its sails tattered, its hull coated in ice and its distress signals flying.
At the same time, on Chicago’s Clark Street Bridge, the atmosphere was festive as children clapped their mittens in excitement. Families pushed past peg-legged vendors and elegant carriage drivers in fur-trimmed hats to get to the edge of the water; each wanted the first glimpse of the ruddy-faced man who would arrive any minute bearing “gifts from the North.”