When you think about Christmas, nautical disasters normally don’t come to mind. And, with our cruise less than three weeks ago, I probably shouldn’t be putting these thoughts in my head! There is a correlation to sinking ships and Christmas and that’s why I’m blogging about this today.
But, first a quick history lesson. When it comes to deadly shipping/boating disasters, the one that is most well-known is probably the “RMS Titanic”. The ship that was branded as “unsinkable” did just that in April 1912 on its maiden voyage about 275 miles from Newfoundland, Canada, after striking an iceberg and sinking. It killed an estimated 1, 500 people. But, if you use death toll as the basis, it’s only the sixth deadliest on record.
The deadliest is the “MV Wilhelm Gustloff”, which sank in January 1945, after being torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. About 9,400 perished in that attack.
In its list of the “Ten Deadliest Shipwrecks in History”, the website, http://www.environmentalgraffiti.com, reports that three of them happened right here in the United States. At #10 is the passenger ship, the “SS Eastland”. It rolled over in the Chicago River while tied to a dock in 1915 killing about 845 people.
The “PS General Slocum”, a passenger steamboat, ranks at #7. A fire broke out on board in New York’s East River in June 1904. An estimated 1,021 people, mostly women and children from a church group heading to a picnic, died in that disaster. This was the New York area’s worst disaster in terms of loss of life until the 9/11 attacks!
And, at #4 is the “SS Sultana”. An explosion aboard this Mississippi River steamboat paddle wheeler on April 27, 1865, caused it to sink just miles from Memphis, Tennessee. It was carrying mostly Civil War soldiers. While the boat had a legal capacity of only 376 people, it’s estimated that about 2,400 people were on board when it sank. It’s listed that 1,547 people died, but that number could have been as high as 1,900.
That tragedy was overshadowed in America by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln less than two weeks earlier.
BUT WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH CHRISTMAS?
This year not only marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the “Titanic”, but it’s also the 100th anniversary of the loss of the “Rouse Simmons”, a three-masted schooner, which foundered in a violent Lake Michigan winter storm on November 23, 1912, near Two Rivers, Wisconsin.
Ships sinking in Great Lakes winter storms in the month of November are not all that uncommon with gale or hurricane-force winds, heavy snow, and high waves. However, the “Rouse Simmons” wasn’t just any ship. In Chicago, it was known as “The Christmas Tree Ship”.
In the 1880s and 1890s, brothers Herman and August Schuenemann would sell Christmas trees to Chicago residents that they would get in the upper peninsula of Michigan. In November 1898, August would die when the two-masted schooner he was sailing on, the “S. Thal” disappeared under the waters near Glencoe, Illinois, in a fierce winter storm. His brother, Herman, would meet the same fate 14 years later.
Herman Schuenemann bought an interest in the “Rouse Simmons” in 1910 and expanded that to one-eighths of a share in 1912. Throughout the early years of the 1900s, Herman became known as “Captain Santa” (center in photo).
Herman would sell Christmas trees for fifty cents to a dollar from a boat decorated with electric Christmas lights at the Clark Street Bridge in Chicago. Since he didn’t have to pay a middleman by bringing in the trees himself, his slogan was “Christmas Tree Ship: My Prices Are The Lowest”. He would even give trees away to the needy.
November 1912 was off to a relatively quiet start across the Great Lakes with only one storm reported that month. Captain Schuenemann and his crew loaded the “Rouse Simmons” with about 5,000 fresh trees in the upper peninsula of Michigan and began their week-long journey to Chicago. That number was well above the weight capacity that the ship should have been carrying.
On November 22nd, the seasoned captain and the long past its sailing days, 44-year-old-aging ship, left the harbor in Thompson, Michigan, just as a winter storm began to rage across the Great Lakes. By the following afternoon, due to the wind and a heavy accumulation of ice and snow, the “Christmas Tree Ship” was in trouble.
A surfman working at a Life Saving Station in Kewaunee, Wisconsin, about 30 miles from Green Bay, alerted a station keeper that at 2:50 p.m. on November 23, 1912, he spotted a schooner heading south flying its flag at half-mast. In navigation, that is the universal sign of distress.
That would be the last sighting of the “Rouse Simmons”. A boat was sent out to try to rescue the distressed crew, but hours later it returned safely back to shore never having spotted the doomed ship. The “Christmas Tree Ship” with “Captain Santa” and an estimated 1o-23 others perished in the icy cold waters. It was just one of many ships that were lost in “The Great Storm of 1912”.
The “Rouse Simmons” was discovered in 1971 in about 165 feet of water at the bottom of Lake Michigan near Two Fingers, Wisconsin.
After that fateful and deadly voyage, Herman Schuenemann’s wife, Barbara, and their three daughters, Elsie (pictured), Pearl, and Hazel, would continue the Christmas tree tradition each year until 1920. But, they shipped the trees to Chicago by train.
These days, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter “Mackinaw” each year travels from northern Michigan to Chicago to bring symbolic Christmas trees to needy to remember Schuenemann and the “Christmas Tree Ship”. Two days ago, on Friday, November 30th, it delivered 1,300 trees.
So, this Christmas when you look at your beautifully decorated tree, take a moment to remember Captain Schuenemann and his crew and the legend of the “Christmas Tree Ship” on this 100th anniversary.
And, what would a blog from Anthony be without a video? While a fierce winter storm on the Great Lakes foundered the “Christmas Tree Ship” in 1912 and many others before and since then, a storm on Lake Superior sent the freighter “SS Edmund Fitzgerald” to its watery grave on November 10, 1975.
The freighter was carrying taconite ore pellets from Superior, Wisconsin, to Detroit, Michigan. It left on November 9, 1975. The next afternoon, it encountered hurricane-force winds and waves upward to 35 feet and it sank in Canadian waters about 530 feet deep about 17 miles from the entrance of Whitefish Bay near the twin cities of Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. All 29 people on board died.
While the “Christmas Tree Ship” will live on in Chicago and the Great Lakes, the “Edmund Fitzgerald” lives on in song. Canadian singer Gordon Lightfoot reached #1 in Canada and #2 in the United States with “The Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald” one year after the freighter foundered. And, I found this amazing video that was produced to remember the 29 men that died to Lightfoot’s song.