LOS ANGELES - Each December, millions of people travel to farms, parking lots, and even their backyards to pick out a Christmas tree. Once upon a time along the Great Lakes, however, they were delivered by the thousands in giant 200-ton ships.
During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, these “Christmas Tree Ships” made runs from Michigan and Wisconsin to bustling waterfront markets where the masses clamored for an evergreen.
In Chicago, one particularly famous skipper was Captain Herman Schuenemann. Aboard his schooner, the Rouse Simmons, he sold trees from ship to dock along the Chicago River while his family made and sold wreaths and garland.
Although his Christmas tree profits never led to great wealth for the family, he was extremely generous and enjoyed giving Christmas trees to the needy of Chicago. At some point, Shuenemann was given the title “Captain Santa” by local newspapers and he proudly kept the newspaper clippings in his oilskin wallet.
But in 1912, Captain Santa, the Rouse Simmons, and the 5,000 Christmas trees bound for Chicago were lost on Lake Michigan during a winter gale. Over the next few months, Christmas trees washed along the shores. Ghost stories and tales spread along Lake Michigan, and Captain Santa’s fate wasn’t confirmed until 1924 when two fishermen found the waterproof oilskin wallet in their fishing nets. It was in pristine condition and still held the proud press clippings.
Sixty years after its disappearance, the Rouse Simmons was accidentally discovered by a scuba diver at the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Watch the video to see how the U.S. Coast Guard and local volunteers carry on Captain Santa’s goodwill.