For at least one Kenosha afternoon, the legendary “Christmas Tree Ship” once again sailed.
Maritime historian Ron Luttrell told the story on Saturday to those attending the open house at the Southport Light Station Museum.
The history program and the Light Station Museum were free. The lighthouse tower was open for $ 10 climbs, and kids could also visit Santa at the Kenosha History Center next door.
Dressed in a Greek fisherman’s cap and a long black trench coat, Luttrell spoke of the Rouse Simmons, a three-masted schooner that is said to carry thousands of Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago more than a year ago. century.
“It’s a beautiful thing,” Luttrell said, pointing to an artist’s rendition of the ship.
There were also Kenosha ties. The ship was named after one of the financiers, Kenosha’s dry goods merchant, Rouse Simmons, brother of mattress tycoon Zalmon Simmons. The 132-foot-long schooner was built by Allan, McClelland and Company in Milwaukee in 1868. Kenoshans Royal B. Townslee and Captain Alfred Ackermann planned the construction and were the original owners.
“Captain Santa” and final voyage of 1912
Rouse Simmons captain Herman Schuenemann earned the nickname “Captain Santa Claus” and was known to give some of the trees to poor families for free. Luttrell said that, for the children of Chicago, “if the Christmas tree ship didn’t show up, if there wasn’t Rouse Simmons, no Captain Santa, it just wasn’t Xmas.”
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The Christmas Tree Ship will make its last voyage in 1912, overloaded with more than 5,000 trees. Luttrell said Schuenmann, struggling with money issues, took a chance with the bad weather and got caught in a storm.
“We know that in fact the ship was blown by the winds, the sails were all ragged and torn, and she was flying her flag at half mast,” Luttrell said. “It’s a warning signal.”
The Rouse Simmons eventually sank, and for over half a century all that remained of the Rouse Simmons was a wreck that washed up on shore, as did Schuenemann’s wallet and his message in a bottle, describing serious condition of the vessel. .
Then, in 1971, divers discovered the wreck of the Rouse Simmons, 172 feet underwater off Rawley Point, with some of its cargo of trees still on board. According to Luttrell, the site is just one of more than 8,000 wrecks in the Great Lakes, including more than 3,000 in Lake Michigan alone.
“In these wrecks there is a lot of history,” said Luttrell, “a lot of folklore.”
The Coast Guard is taking this route today
Today, Lutrell said the Coast Guard is still running a Christmas tree ship, the Mackinaw Cutter, in Chicago.
“If you ever want to check out, they’re still there on Christmas Day,” Luttrell said.
Luttrell, who also runs tours of the Southport Lighthouse, said he made the same presentation on the Christmas Tree Ship several years ago and was surprised at its popularity.
“I’ve been fascinated by ships since I was a kid,” said Luttrell, who also spends time as a professional model ship builder.
Luttrell said the story of the Christmas Tree Ship still draws people in. They sympathize with Captain Schuenemann, known for his generosity, and are captivated by the tragedy that claimed the lives of everyone on board.
“It really attracts people,” Luttrell said.
A second presentation on the Christmas Tree Ship is scheduled for Saturday, December 11 at 12:30 p.m. at the Southport Light Station Museum, 5117 4th avenue