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 members
Manitowoc 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.

Civil War Cannonballs Found on South Carolina Beach in Aftermath of Hurricane Dorian

ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images
ABDESIGN/iStock via Getty Images

Hurricane Dorian skimmed the United States' East Coast last week, creating a trail of damage residents are still dealing with. But it wasn't just trash and debris the storm surges left behind: As WCSC reports, two cannonballs dating back to the Civil War were discovered on Folly Beach in South Carolina in the aftermath of the storm.

Aaron Lattin and his girlfriend Alba were walking on the beach on September 6 when they saw what looked like rocks nestled in the sand. As they examined them more closely, they realized they had found something much more special. The weathered objects were actually cannonballs that have likely been buried in the area for more than 150 years.

Incredibly, this isn't the first time Civil War cannonballs have been discovered on Folly Beach following a hurricane: In 2016, Hurricane Matthew unearthed 16 of them. Folly Island was used as a Union base a century and a half ago, and items leftover from the artillery battery built there are still scattered around the shoreline. The couple behind this latest discovery believes there are more waiting to be found.

Old cannonballs may look like cool artifacts to treasure hunters, but they should still be treated with caution. Police and bombs disposal technicians were called to the scene at Folly Beach to confirm the cannonballs were no longer functional.

[h/t WCSC]

A Lost Japanese Village Has Been Uncovered in the British Columbia Wilderness

Ferenc Cegledi/iStock via Getty Images
Ferenc Cegledi/iStock via Getty Images

In 2004, a retired forester reached out to Capilano University archaeology professor Bob Muckle about investigating what looked like the remnants of an old logging camp in the forests of British Columbia, Canada. North Shore News reports that each spring for the next 14 years, Muckle took his students there to help him excavate what he now believes was a sort-of-secret Japanese settlement.

The site is located on the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve, about 12 miles northeast of Vancouver. It’s approximately the size of a football field and contains the remains of more than a dozen cabins, a bathhouse, a road made of cedar planks, and a cedar platform that may have been a shrine. Muckle and his students have also unearthed more than 1000 items, including sake and beer bottles from Japan, teapots, game pieces, medicine bottles, clocks, pocket watches, clothing buttons, coins, and hoards of ceramics.

Japanese businessman Eikichi Kagetsu secured logging rights to the area near the camp around 1918, so it’s likely that the settlers were originally loggers and their families. Though the trees were cleared out by 1924 and Kagetsu continued his business ventures on Vancouver Island, there's evidence to suggest that some members of the logging community didn't leave right away.

Muckle believes that at least some of the 40 to 50 camp inhabitants chose to remain there, protected from rising racism in Canadian society, until 1942, when the Canadian government started moving Japanese immigrants to internment camps in the wake of the outbreak of World War II.

Muckle thinks the residents must have evacuated in a hurry since they left so many precious and personal items behind. “When people leave, usually they take all the good stuff with them,” he told North Shore News. His team even uncovered parts of an Eastman Kodak Bulls-Eye camera, a house key, and an expensive cook stove that someone had hidden behind a stump on the edge of the village. “They were probably smart enough to realize people might loot the site,” he added.

According to Smithsonian.com, Japanese immigrants had been victims of racism and discrimination in Canada since the first wave of immigration from Japan in 1877. They were generally met with hostility across the country, and kept from voting, entering the civil service, and working in law and other professions. Anti-Japan sentiment dramatically worsened after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, and The Canadian Encyclopedia estimates that more than 90 percent of Japanese Canadians—many of them citizens by birth—were displaced during the war.

To Muckle, this all contributes to the likelihood that villagers would have chosen to stay insulated by the forest for as long as they could. “The impression that I get, generally speaking, is it would have been a nice life for these people,” he said. It wouldn't be the first time a remote, wild area served as a refuge for a persecuted community—farther south and east, escaped enslaved people settled in the swamplands bordering North Carolina and Virginia for the century leading up to the Civil War.

While Muckle believes people stayed in the Canadian camp until the 1940s, it's hard to prove—there are no records for the inhabitants of the camp or where they might have gone. If there’s evidence in the village that can prove residents did stay until the 1940s, it will soon fall to other curious archaeologists to find it: Muckle thinks this will be his last season at the site.

Or, maybe the smoking gun will be discovered by someone who isn’t an archaeologist at all. Here are 10 times ordinary people (and one badger) unearthed amazing archaeological finds.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]

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