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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

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.

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Maritime archaeologists survey the Rouse Simmons shipwreck on the bottom of Lake Michigan.
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
Researchers Accidentally Discover 128-Year-Old Shipwreck
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Scientists conducting a routine survey of the waters along Australia's east coast got more than they bargained for when they accidentally discovered a 128-year-old shipwreck.

Their encounter with the sunken Carlisle, which sank in 1890, was captured on camera, and Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has released footage showing an aerial view of the wreckage, teeming with schools of fish.

The researchers were mapping the seafloor of Bass Strait, which separates mainland Australia from the island of Tasmania, to improve nautical charts for the major shipping route, according to Mashable. During a scan of the waters, the sunken ship showed up as a "blip," ABC reports.

"We just happened to go over this blip, and we noticed it, and thought, 'Oh jeez, that looks just a little too much like a shipwreck,' and so we did a little bit more investigating and looked at it digitally," CSIRO hydrographer Matt Boyd told ABC. "Then once we established that yes, it was a shipwreck, we put a drop camera down."

Volunteers from the Maritime Archaeological Association of Victoria then went to the site and confirmed that the ship was indeed the Carlisle. It most likely collided with rocks while sailing from Melbourne to Newcastle, where it was supposed to pick up coal on its way to South America. All 23 crew members survived, escaping on three life boats.

The researchers discovered two more shipwrecks during a weeklong expedition from Brisbane to Hobart, one of which was identified as the HMAS Pioneer, a ship built for the British Royal Navy in 1900 that was scuttled in 1931.

[h/t ABC]

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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
6 Priceless Treasures Lost in Shipwrecks
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In the lore around treasures lost at sea, most of the excitement goes to pirate’s gold and the sunken luxuries of the Titanic. But in the centuries of human seafaring, many lesser-known priceless objects, from literary manuscripts to scientific research, have been claimed by the depths. Here are some tales of those losses, from a lifetime of work by a 19th-century woman who was an expert in cephalopods, to a rare book by Dickens that went down with the Lusitania.

1. LOUIS DE JAUCOURT'S ANATOMICAL LEXICON

Always, always, always back up your work. Of course, that's easier now than it was in the 18th century, when French scholar Louis de Jaucourt dispatched his six-volume Lexicon medicum universale to his Amsterdam publisher, a move intended to evade French censorship. The medical dictionary, on which he'd spent 20 years, was completely lost when the ship it was on sank off Holland's coast. Luckily, Jaucourt rebounded when Denis Diderot asked him to contribute to the Encyclopédie, now considered one of the greatest works of Enlightenment thought, for which he used his notes from the lost manuscript. Jaucourt became the publication's most prolific author, penning 40,000 articles—so many he was nicknamed l'esclave de l’Encyclopédie, or the "slave of the Encyclopedia."

2. THE FIELDWORK OF ALFRED RUSSEL WALLACE

Portrait of Alfred Russel Wallace, Welsh naturalist and explorer
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In 1852, following four years of research in the Amazon, the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was ready to return to England. He loaded his copious notes, animal and plant specimens, and drawings onto the brig Helen. Just 26 days into the voyage, the vessel caught fire. Wallace only had time to hastily fill a tin box with a few drawings of fish and palms and some scientific notes before joining the crew in the lifeboat. After 10 days marooned at sea, they were rescued by the brig Jordeson—but most of Wallace's work was gone forever. As he lamented in an October 19, 1852 letter, "The only things which I saved were my watch, my drawings of fishes, and a portion of my notes and journals. Most of my journals, notes on the habits of animals, and drawings of the transformations of insects, were lost.” While he continued as a leading naturalist—albeit one overshadowed in his evolution research by Charles Darwin—Wallace was never able to reconstruct those years of fieldwork.

3. THE CEPHALOPOD RESEARCH OF JEANNE VILLEPREUX-POWER

Before Jeanne Villepreux-Power’s 19th-century research, most scientists thought the Argonauta argo, or paper nautilus, scavenged its shell from other animals. But by inventing the modern aquarium, Villepreux-Power could study the species first-hand, and witness how it grows and repairs its own shell. The breakthrough was one of many discoveries made by the pioneer in cephalopod research, one of the few women to achieve prominence in Victorian science. She might be better known today if it weren't for the fact that when she and her husband decided to move from Sicily to London, the vessel on which they’d shipped their possessions—including the majority of her drawings, notes, and equipment—foundered off the coast of France in 1843. After the devastating loss, she never published again.

4. A COPY OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL OWNED BY CHARLES DICKENS

Sinking of the Lusitania
Three Lions/Getty Images

When Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat realized the RMS Lusitania was doomed that fateful day in 1915, he dashed to his cabin, using the light from a few matches to try to find the literary treasures he’d brought aboard. These included original drawings by Vanity Fair author William Makepeace Thackeray, as well as an edition of A Christmas Carol owned by Charles Dickens himself. The edition was irreplaceable, since it included Dickens’s notes related to his 1844 copyright suit against the illicit republishing of his story. In the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson vividly describes Lauriat’s harrowing experience when the ocean liner was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland: Lauriat grabbed the leather briefcase containing the Dickens, but left the Thackeray sketches behind. Rushing out to the deck, he saw a lifeboat packed with women and children that was being dragged down by the sinking ship. He jumped in with the briefcase, yet was unable to free the lifeboat, and in the escape into the water he lost the precious cargo. Out in the waves, he managed to evade entanglement with an antenna, swim to a collapsible lifeboat, and survive. One of the few items he managed to save were photographs of his baby, which he told his wife were his "mascot."

5. WRITINGS OF JOSÉ ASUNCIÓN SILVA

Portrait of José Asunción Silva

Many Colombians can recite the first lines from the influential Modernist poet José Asunción Silva's "Nocturne III"—"A night / A night full of hushings, of the curled wool of perfume / And incanting wing"—and it’s even printed in microtext on the 5000 Colombian peso bill. The poem, written in 1892, is believed to be a tribute to Silva’s half-sister. Silva suffered another blow in 1895, when many of his manuscripts, including a draft of a novel, were lost in a shipwreck. He left his diplomatic post in Venezuela, and dedicated all his time to reconstructing the drowned novel. But his melancholy continued: After visiting a doctor to ask the exact position of his heart, he shot himself in 1896. His rewritten novel—After-Dinner Conversation (De sobremesa) —wasn’t published until 1925.

6. THE ART OF GIOVANNI BATTISTA LUSIERI

The South-east Corner of the Parthenon, Athens by Giovanni Battista Lusieri
Giovanni Battista Lusieri, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Giovanni Battista Lusieri was a meticulous painter of the Italian landscape, particularly its classical ruins. In large panoramas and more compact watercolors, he depicted the Acropolis, views of Rome and Naples, and, his favorite, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Some of his most striking works captured the volcano at night, illuminating the darkness with its orange glow. Lord Byron called him "an Italian painter of the first eminence." Yet his name is now obscure. This is partly due to the years he stopped painting to help Lord Elgin remove and ship the Parthenon Marbles to London. But when Lusieri's artwork was being sent home from Greece after his death in 1821, a shipwreck destroyed nearly half of it (including a spectacular 25-foot-long panorama of Athens), helping to ensure his fall from fame.

BONUS: PEKING MAN

A replica of the Peking Man Skull
A replica of the Peking Man Skull

When paleontologists discovered the bones of "Peking man" in a dig near Beijing in the 1920s, they were the oldest hominid fossils ever found. However, scientists can now only study the bones—thought to be about half a million years old—from casts. The Peking Man fossils were last seen in December 1941, but vanished during the Japanese occupation of China while they were being sent to the United States for safekeeping. There are many conjectures on their fate, from being secretly stored away in Japan, to being under a parking lot in China. Yet one enduring theory is that they were lost at sea on the Japanese freighter Awa Maru: In 1945, the ship was torpedoed in the Taiwan Strait by the USS Queenfish despite being guaranteed safe passage by the United States, leading to the loss of more than 2000 lives—and, it's said, the priceless Peking fossils [PDF].

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