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Even the hint of snow couldn’t dampen the holiday spirit as the crowd scanned the harbor for a single, snow-covered pine tree entwined atop Schuenemann’s 80-foot mast. Every year, with the tree flying like a Christmas flag, the captain would sail past the modern side-wheel steamers to the dock, where the waiting crowds could take their pick from the overflowing stacks of fragrant balsams.
Schuenemann’s arrival was always the best assignment of the year for cub reporter Vincent Starrett of the Chicago Daily News. He especially looked forward to the start of the annual assignment—a cup of Christmas cheer in the captain’s cabin, where, as he would later write in an article about the custom, the two old friends would “discuss the perils of Lake Michigan as if it were the Atlantic Ocean.”
Readers were also eager to hear more about the Christmas trees, which had firmly entered the ranks of tradition in Chicago and across America by that time. Brought to America by German immigrants, the custom had finally overcome a heavy resistance by the Puritans, who had called the trees “a plain case of idolatry.” But the tree business was booming in 1912 as the cities of New York and Boston prepared to dedicate their first municipal Christmas trees in Times Square and Boston Commons.
When the captain reached Chicago in the early 1900s, he could expect a brisk trade that would go on all day and sometimes into the night, Starrett later would write.
“Prices were not excessive for the day,” he recalled. “For 75 cents, one could get a full-sized tree; a dollar would give you the choice of the best. They all went quickly, for the Christmas tree ship was a Chicago tradition.”
But as the day of expected arrival wore on, Starrett and his colleagues were starting to worry as they waited. Night fell and turned into another day, then another, and rumors began to fly about the ship’s fate. Starrett would visit the docks for another two weeks before he got enough information to write the story for the Daily News, which he began: This is the tale of the Christmas Ship that sailed o’er the sullen lake. And of sixteen souls that made the trip and of death in the foaming wake.
Boisterous Chicago newsboys swarmed the street shouting the headlines of the day: “Rats Fled Doomed Christmas Ship,” and the inaccurate, “Christmas Tree Schooner Sighted. Santa Claus Ship May Be Safe!” Rumors dominated the front pages until mid-December, when Christmas trees started to wash ashore and become entangled in fishermen’s nets. On December 13, a bottle and a note torn from the ship’s log washed up on shore in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, and solved the mystery. It read:
Friday – Everybody goodbye. I guess we are all through. Sea washed over our deck on Thursday. During the night the small boat was washed over. Leaking bad. Ingvald and Steve fell overboard Thursday. God help us.—Herman Schuenemann
The message wasn’t the end of the story, though, and it was the response of the captain’s wife, Barbara, that turned history into legend.
When the snow fell in Chicago that next November, Barbara Schuenemann and her daughters were standing proudly aboard a newly chartered Christmas ship as it sailed into port with the snow-coated pine tree flying in the mast. She carried on the tradition by both ship and rail until she died 22 years later.
Over the years in the same Chicago harbor, wily entrepreneurs—perhaps not at all unlike the Schuenemann brothers—have tried to bring back the spirit of the ship and capitalize on the sentiment it inspired. But the newer “tree” ships docked at Navy Pier haven’t yet found the secret of the captain’s three-masted schooner. And no modern-day Santa can yet compete with the man with twinkling blue eyes who’d sell trees under a make-shift string of white lights and a sign proclaiming: “Christmas Tree Ship. My Prices are the Lowest.”