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.

Dozens of Cat Mummies, Plus 100 Cat Statues, Discovered in 4500-Year-Old Egyptian Tomb

iStock.com/Murat İnan
iStock.com/Murat İnan

The mummification of cats was a common practice in ancient Egypt, but it’s always a pleasant surprise when the felines are found thousands of years later. As NPR reports, dozens of mummified cats and 100 wooden cat statues were recently discovered in a 4500-year-old tomb near Cairo.

These items were uncovered by Egyptian archaeologists while excavating a newly discovered tomb in Saqqara, whose necropolis served the ancient city of Memphis. Another nearby tomb remains sealed, and it’s possible that it may have evaded looters and remained untouched for millennia.

In addition to the wooden statues, one bronze cat statue was found. It was dedicated to Bastet, goddess of cats, who was said to be the daughter of Re, god of the Sun. While cats were revered by ancient Egyptians, they weren’t directly worshipped. Rather, gods like Bastet were often depicted with the physical characteristics of an animal that was considered divine.

Even rarer than the mummified cats were a couple collections of mummified scarab beetles that were found in the tomb—the first of their kind to be unearthed in this particular necropolis, Egypt's Ministry of Antiquities announced in a Facebook post. The scarabs were still in “very good condition” because they had been wrapped in linen and placed inside two limestone sarcophagi, whose lids had black scarabs painted on top.

"The (mummified) scarab is something really unique. It is something really a bit rare," Mostafa Waziri, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities, told Reuters and other media. "A couple of days ago, when we discovered those coffins, they were sealed coffins with drawings of scarabs. I never heard about them before."

The beetles were an important religious symbol in ancient Egypt, representing renewal and rebirth. The Ministry of Antiquities said archaeologists also found wooden statues of a lion, a cow, and a falcon, as well as painted wooden sarcophagi of cobras (with mummies inside) and wooden sarcophagi of crocodiles.

[h/t NPR]

12 Doomed Facts About the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald

The wind in the wires made a tattle-tale sound
When the wave broke over the railing
And every man knew, as the captain did too
'Twas the witch of November come stealin'
-Gordon Lightfoot, "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" (1976) 

On November 10, 1975, two ships made their way in tandem across the stormy waters of Lake Superior. One was the Arthur M. Anderson, led by Captain Jesse Cooper. The other, captained by Ernest McSorley, was the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald.

The ship was last seen on radar around 7:15 p.m. All 29 men on board were lost with it, and today, more than four decades after the most famous shipwreck in Great Lakes history, the cause is still a mystery.

Here's what we do know about the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, and what happened to it that fateful day:

1. IT WAS THE LARGEST SHIP ON THE GREAT LAKES.

The large cargo vessels that roamed the five Great Lakes were known as lakers, and the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald was, at the time, the biggest ever built. It was constructed as a “maximum sized” bulk carrier and spanned 729 feet—the first laker to reach that length—sat 39 feet high with a width of 75 feet, and weighed more than 13,000 tons without cargo. It was christened on June 8, 1958, and made its first voyage on September 24 the same year. 

2. THE SHIP WAS OWNED BY AN INSURANCE COMPANY.


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Great Lakes Engineering Works of Ecorse, Michigan, was contracted to build the ship in 1957 by Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company, which had invested heavily in the iron and minerals industries. With the commissioning of the Fitzgerald, Northwestern Mutual became the first American insurance company to build its own ship—at a cost of $8.4 million, the most expensive price tag for a freighter at the time, according to Michael Schumacher’s The Mighty Fitz.

3. IT WAS NAMED AFTER THE HEAD OF THE COMPANY.

The chairman of Northwestern Mutual had a long history with the Great Lakes shipping industry. Edmund Fitzgerald’s grandfather captained a ship on the lakes, his father owned a shipyard, and they both had ships named after them. After construction of the Fitzgerald was complete, Northwestern Mutual placed its charter with the Columbia Transportation Division of Oglebay Norton Company, based in Cleveland. 

4. THE SHIP'S MAIN JOB WAS HAULING IRON ORE. 


Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Most lakers traversing the Great Lakes and the connecting waterways carry massive amounts of raw materials such as rock, salt, and grain. The Edmund Fitzgerald generally loaded taconite, low-grade iron ore, from mines on the shores of Minnesota and transported the pellets to steel mills near Detroit and Toledo, Ohio.

5. "THE FITZ" WAS WELL-KNOWN EVEN BEFORE IT SANK.

Its impressive size made the ship popular with boat-watchers, and over the years it garnered many nicknames, including “The Queen of the Great Lakes,” “The Toledo Express,” and the unfortunate “Titanic of the Great Lakes.” Crowds would watch as the massive freighter moved through the locks at Sault Ste. Marie in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The “Soo” Locks, which connect Lake Superior to Lake Huron, allowed the Fitz to reach ports on the lower Great Lakes.

6. THE SHIP RAN INTO A DEADLY STORM ON LAKE SUPERIOR.

November is a brutal month on the Great Lakes. Frequent storms and hurricane-force winds can batter even the toughest-built freighters. On November 9, the Fitz was loaded with 26,116 tons of iron ore pellets at the Burlington Northern Railroad Dock in Superior, Wisconsin. It left at 2:30 p.m. A second ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, sailed 10-15 miles behind the Fitzgerald as a precaution, and the two ships remained in radio contact until just after 7 p.m. on November 10.

Gale warnings had been issued by the National Weather Service the previous day, and by the morning of the 10th, the advisories had been upgraded to an official storm warning. 

As swells reached 35 feet and winds raged at nearly 100 mph, the ship contacted Coast Guard officials in Sault Ste. Marie and said they were taking on water. Later, a blizzard obscured the Fitz on the Anderson’s radar, but Captain Ernest McSorley, who was on his final voyage before retirement, assured a crew member on the Anderson at 7:10 p.m. that, “We are holding our own.” It was the last anyone heard from McSorley or the Fitzgerald.

7. NO DISTRESS SIGNAL WAS SENT.

After that, there was nothing on the radar. No radio contact. The ship was approximately 15 miles north of Whitefish Point when it seemingly vanished. Captain Cooper, on the Anderson, was in contact with the Coast Guard and made it to Whitefish Point sometime after 8 p.m. with no sign or word from the Fitzgerald. Later, the Anderson made its way back into the storm to search for the ship, but found only a pair of lifeboats and debris. 

8. ALL 29 CREW MEMBERS DIED. 

Along with the captain, the other crew members of the Fitzgerald included porters, oilers, engineers, maintenance workers, cooks, watchmen, deck hands, and wheelsmen. Most crew members were from Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Minnesota.

9. THERE IS STILL NO DEFINITIVE EXPLANATION FOR THE SINKING.

The treacherous weather conditions are an obvious factor, but experts differ on what they think specifically caused the accident. Following the wreck, the U.S. Coast Guard and National Transportation Safety Board agreed that the tragedy was likely due to faulty cargo hatches, which led to flooding. Predictably, there are still those who harbor other theories, including unsecured hatches, maintenance troubles, massive waves, structural issues, and yes, even aliens. Author and Great Lakes historian Frederick Stonehouse posited that the ship likely hit a shoal and took on too much water before plunging into Lake Superior.

10. THE TRAGEDY WAS IMMORTALIZED BY A CANADIAN FOLK SINGER.

Gordon Lightfoot, who had released 10 albums from 1966 to 1975, was inspired to write the ballad “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” after reading an article about the tragedy in Newsweek. He included the song on his 1976 album Summertime Dream, and the nearly six-minute single reached #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts that year and became Lightfoot’s second-most successful hit.

11. FAMILY MEMBERS REQUESTED A SYMBOLIC MEMORIAL FROM THE SHIP.

The U.S. Navy and Coast Guard deployed planes and cutters with magnetic anomaly detectors, sidescan sonar, and sonar survey to find the wreckage. In May, a Navy underwater recovery vehicle was sent to the site, and on May 20, 1976, the ship was spotted 535 below the surface of the lake.

In the decades since, only a handful of people have been able to see the wreck, which lies in two pieces. A pair of divers made their way down in 1995, the same year a crew—with help from the Canadian Navy, the National Geographic Society, Sony, and the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians—retrieved the ship's bell at the behest of the families of those who were lost. The Canadian government has since prohibited access to the site. 

In eerie archival tapes below, you can hear Anderson skipper Jesse Cooper correspond with the Coast Guard, and see video of the wreck.

12. THERE'S AN ANNUAL REMEMBRANCE DAY.

The annual Edmund Fitzgerald memorial ceremony takes place on November 10th at the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. The recovered and restored bell will toll 29 times for each member of the Fitzgerald's crew, and a 30th for the estimated 30,000 mariners lost on the Great Lakes.

For more on the story and the ship, visit S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald Online

This article originally appeared in 2015.

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