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The municipal Christmas tree in Daley Plaza belongs to all the citizens of Chicago, and is a tradition that began 100 years ago.  But do you know why?  On this Christmas eve, 2013, WGN’s Steve Sanders brings us a rich and enduring part of Chicago history; the story of the Christmas tree ship, and it’s beloved “Captain Santa.”

”He thought he would beat the weather.  But, if he didn’t, then the people wouldn’t get their Christmas trees,” says Dr. William Ehling.  He’s the grandson of Herman Schuenemann, Chicago’s “Captain Santa.”

“They sold the trees right off the ship. And from what I’ve heard about my grandfather, he gave away about as many as he sold. I don’t think he was the world’s best businessman but he was a beloved person and became known as ‘Captain Santa.’”

Dr. Ehling never knew his grandfather, who went down with his ship in 1912, the same year as the Titanic. The 3-masted schooner, “Rouse Simmons,” was fully loaded with Christmas trees bound for the Captain’s spot, the Clark Street bridge.  Captain Schuenemann was well aware of the dangers, because his older brother August, had died delivering trees on Lake Michigan.

Wisconsin author Rochelle Pennington reads from one of three books she’s written on the Christmas tree ship: “The Captain couldn’t bear the thought of a house not having a Christmas tree.” And she travels from coast to coast keeping the story alive. We met her speaking to students at Lincoln Elementary School in Ottawa, Illinois.

“I just fell in love with the story immediately.  I tell people I’m in a long line of folks over the last century who has really attached themselves to the story,” she said.

Historic records show the Rouse Simmons left Thompson, Michigan in the upper peninsula on Friday, November 22. The sixteen or so on board were pushing the shipping season by almost a month, in a 44 year old ship, some believe overloaded with Christmas trees. Greg Goodchild is Executive Director of the Rogers Street Maritine Museum in Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

“All we can say with certainty is we know that he passed the Kewaunee Coast Guard station. And they did observe the distress flag he was flying.  They knew he was in trouble,” Goodchild said.

A lifesaving crew was dispatched from Two Rivers at mid-afternoon.  Logs show the weather was clear enough to see all the way to Kewaunee, more than 20 miles.  There was no sign of the Rouse Simmons.  Children, like Two Rivers native Maggie Becker Koeppe, played on the beach.  And for years, there were hints the shipwreck may be nearby. ” By early evening, a gale was brewing, and the rescue crew was fighting 40 foot swells, with only oars, their brute strength, and bravery.  Their motto?  You have to go out, you don’t have to come back.

Maritime Archaeologist and diver for the Wisconsin Historical Society, Tamara Thomsen shows us the course of the rescue crew: “We plotted this course and we found out they went right around where the Rouse Simmons is here on the bottom.”  There were no witnesses, no survivors.

“We believe that they just got hit by a wave.  It took a nosedive into the wave, it caught the anchor and it came over the bowsprit which drove them down into the bottom,” she said.  It took 59 years, until 1971, for Milwaukee diver Kent Bellrichards to discover the wreckage of the Rouse Simmons in 178 feet of water, about four-and-a-half miles offshore from Two Rivers.  Thomsen has been down to see it several times.

“It’s just a beautiful site.  And it’s very interesting that it’s completely loaded with Christmas trees even today.  And if you look down below the top layer of Christmas trees – Christmas trees still have needles on them,” Thomsen said. Divers recovered hundreds of artifacts. Among them are Edison light bulbs that still work, the ship’s name boards, and her wheel.  They’re among the hundreds of prized possessions at the Rogers Street Fishing Village.

“People come in, they’re at the helm of a sunken ship. It’s one thing to talk history; it’s another to touch it, to feel it, to breathe it,” Thomsen said. Whatever happened to the Rouse Simmons, Thomsen says it appears Captain Schuenemann had lost the ability to steer the ship.

“People who are accustomed to hearing the Christmas tree ship story always hear about the snow storm parting and them getting a glimpse of the ship through the snow, and people screaming for help, and them not being able to get to them in time. And that just didn’t happen.”

“I don’t think anybody will ever be able to tell what is 100% truthful and is not,” says Goodchild. “But you know the same thing happened with the Titanic and that builds and creates the mystery of it.”

Artists of all kinds have kept the Christmas tree ship story alive, perhaps none more vividly than maritime painters Charles Vickery and his protégé, Eric Forsberg.

“The ship went down of course and people died. But the story lived on. Christmas was a special time. That’s why he was called ‘Captain Santa,’ because kids would wait on the bridge for him to come. And they thought he came from the North Pole with Christmas trees,” Forsberg said.

The year after Captain Schuenemann’s death, wife Barbara, and daughters Elsie, Hazel, and Pearl, took over where the Captain left off, selling and sometimes giving trees and wreaths away at Clark Street.  And the next Christmas, in 1913, the city of Chicago erected a giant Christmas tree on the lakefront in honor of the Captain, his brother, and his crew.  100-thousand people turned out on Christmas Eve to pay tribute

“And so this became the memorial which also then was at the same time a celebration, and there is Chicago’s first Christmas tree,” said Tim Samuelson, cultural historian for the city of Chicago.

100 years later, the municipal tree is bigger and brighter than ever, lighting up the holidays for all. Barb Ehling of Streator is proud to be Captain Santa’s great granddaughter.

“I know people don’t know me personally in Chicago. But, just to know that still carrying that on after 100 years. Not too many people can say that they’ve been a part of history for over 100 years,” she said.

We think Captain Schuenemann himself would be amazed that long after his icy death, the United States Coast Guard continues his legacy of hard work and generosity with a new Christmas ship. Author Rochelle Pennington picks up the story: “Every year they bring the Mackinaw into Navy Pier. Every tree on board is given away free to poor people in memory of the Captain from long ago.”

“The message is Chicago cares,” says Captain Dave Truitt who serves on the Christmas Tree Ship committee.  “The marine community, which he was a part of, really cares.”

The Coast Guard delivered 1200 free trees this year.  And every one of them went home with deserving families, making this Christmas a little brighter.

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Pam Grimes wrote and produced this story.  Photojournalists Steve Scheuer and Mike D’Angelo were the videographers and editors.