Monday, November 17, 2014

Christmas Tree Ghost Ship

From 1898 to 1912, Herman Schuenemann was the Captain of the wooden schooner Rouse Simmons. 

Captain Schuenemann was considered as much a part of Chicago’s Christmas as Santa Claus, because his ship was better known as the “Christmas Tree Ship.”

Every November he would set sail on Lake Michigan from Thompson with a full cargo of spruces, pines, and balsams piled high.

As Schuenemann reached his destination-- he would steer the Rouse Simmons down the Chicago River and up to the Clark Street Bridge, were thousands of waving Chicagoans would wait in anticipation.

Once the ship had docked, people swarmed onboard to choose a Christmas tree. They cost 50 cents to a dollar.

“Chicago’s Yuletide season began when the Christmas Tree Ship arrived with evergreens lashed to her masts and rigging… Her skipper would welcome throngs of Chicagoans aboard as soon as the ship’s moorings were secure. Whole families would hurry to the dock to get the pick of the crop. Many wandered on deck to watch the Captain’s daughter, Elsie, weave pine branches into wreaths, which were also for sale.”

         --Reminiscences of Phil Sanders when he was a boy.

Herman Schuenemann, and his brother August before him-- from 1876-to 1898-- always made sure no one left without a tree. Both brothers gave away hundreds of trees to needy families, churches, and orphanages.

August was carrying a load of trees to Chicago when his ship went down in 1898, in one of Lake Michigan’s fierce November gales. His brother, Herman, made another trip just two weeks later determined Chicago would have its Christmas trees that year.

Unfortunately, fourteen years later Herman would suffer the same fate.

Bad Omens

Lake sailors, as well as ocean sailors, are a superstitious lot--they have to be. Generations of “old salts” pass down what a sailor needs to be aware of--this includes everything that happens on and around their ships.

Captain Herman Schuenemann
in the middle with two crew members.
Captain Schuenemann was a competent, and cautious sailor but for some reason he ignored a significant number of ominous warnings in November of 1912.

He was planning to sail from Thompson, Michigan, on a Friday with a large cargo of trees despite severe storm warnings. His crew was nervous, for there was an apparent storm brewing, and the captain wanted to start their journey on a Friday.

Sailors considered it extremely unlucky to begin a voyage on a Friday. In the 1800s, the British Navy was so annoyed by this superstition they purposefully launched a new ship called HMS Friday on a Friday.

Needless to say this ship and its crew was never seen again.

Captain Charles Nelson, Herman’s partner, who had been a lake captain for 50 years tried to persuade Herman to delay, but he could not convince him. Herman didn’t want to take the risk of being iced into the harbor, and having his ship dashed against the docks by gale-force winds.

Schuenemann then ignored several more bad omens. Just before the schooner left the harbor, several sailors watched in horror as droves of rats fled the ship. This is believed to be a sign a vessel is in imminent danger.

Three crew members afraid left the Rouse Simmons, forfeiting their pay. This left just 13 crewmembers on the ship. Sailing with thirteen crewmembers was considered to be as dangerous as starting a voyage on a Friday.

Ships at the time nailed a horseshoe to the side of their vessels for good luck. Just as on land, it is considered bad luck if these horseshoes are hung upside down--all the luck will run out.

As the Rouse Simmons set sail, the horseshoe that was hung on its side was loosened by strong winds. It was now hanging upside down on a single nail.

The Storm

Captain Schuenemann left the harbor on November 22nd and sailed right into the now infamous Big Storm of 1912.

The temperature immediately dropped from 40 degrees to below freezing.  Rain turned to snow and ice, which coated the ships’ rigging, sails and spars--and the Christmas trees that were on deck.

The next day witnesses in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, saw the Rouse Simmons pass by flying her distress signals. They wondered why the ship with its tattered sails did not just stop but instead sailed into a blinding snowstorm.

“The Two Rivers Life Saving Crew was informed of the ships’ distress signals and set out in search of the schooner but it was never found.”

                   --From an article in the Chronicle of Two Rivers

Wreck of Rouse Simmons
This mystery was not solved until 1971 when the wreck of the Rouse Simmons was found at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Its wheel was missing so the experts concluded that the enormous ship's cargo of Christmas trees had basically turned into ice blocks on deck, which then slid into the wheel leaving the captain unable to control the ships’ course.

Phantom Bells and a Ghost Ship

One popular sailor superstition is that when a ship’s bells are heard ringing of their own accord, as in a storm, this foretells death.

In the days after the Rouse Simmons was lost, several people near Two Rivers, Wisconsin reported hearing phantom bells and phantom cries in the wind.

A ghost ship has also been seen over the years. It is often spotted on Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day, gliding in the waters near Two Rivers. People have watched as it just vanishes into a mist.

Excerpts from Haunted Christmas by Mary Beth Crain

1 comment:

Leona Joan said...

What a spooky story for Christmas. God bless Herman and August and all the crew who risked their lives to deliver the Christmas trees. The phantom bells must be so eerie. That's really interesting about ships not sailing on Fridays because of bad luck and the horsehoe that turned upside down on Herman'sship. The superstitions of sailors on the seas and lakes are so fascinating. Thanks for sharing. 🎃