Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Christmas Tree Ship by Cris Kohl and Joan Forsberg

A legend of the great lakes, the famous Christmas tree ship, the Rouse Simmons sank in Lake Michigan in 1912.    I first heard of this ship when I moved to Kewaunee and my sons checked out a nice “Christmas Tree Ship” children’s book at Christmas.  I thought it would be a happy Christmas story, but as I read the end of the book to the boys I was crying.  You mean Captain Santa does not make it back to his wife and three daughters?  Cue the tears.

The Christmas Tree Ship adult book gives great historical detail about Christmas trees, the use of Christmas tree ships, Captain Herman Schuenemann, the Rouse Simmons, the sinking of the ship, and its rediscovery in the 1970’s.  It also discusses the current Christmas tree ships that keep up the tradition in Chicago.  

I was interested to learn in this book that Christmas tree ships were kind of a nostalgic tradition even in 1912.  Instead of just buying a Christmas tree at a lot or on a sidewalk, it was a family tradition to go down to the Chicago River and select a tree from a schooner, which had become a rare sight on Lake Michigan at this time.  

Another interesting tidbit I learned was that Captain Schuenemann’s business model was to buy old schooners on their last legs and try to stay at least one trip away from their sinking.  In fact, his brother met his end when his Christmas tree ship sank on the way to Chicago.  Captain Schuenemann may have hauled lumber all year, but it was the Christmas tree ship that made the most profit and made it, so they could clear the year with profit.  

Captain Schuenemann had become known as Captain Santa and tried to outrun a storm with his load of Christmas trees from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on his way to Chicago.  Unfortunately, the storm caught him and he lost control of his overloaded ship.  It was last seen flying a distress flag going by Kewaunee (where I live).  The Kewaunee Rescue station called the Two Rivers Rescue station as they had a motor boat (Kewaunee did not) and they risked their lives to help the Rouse Simmons, but never found the ship in their search.  It was not seen again until a diver found in the 1970’s.  Captain Schuenemann’s wife and daughters kept up the tradition for twenty years after his passing, which is extraordinary.

I really liked reading the details in this book, I learned a lot more about Christmas trees, Christmas ships, and the Rouse Simmons.  I found it fascinating.  I thought the layout of the book was very informative and I LOVED all the pictures that were included.  My husband and kids loved looking at this book as well.

Favorite Quotes:

“There are few Great Lakes shipwrecks that have attained “legend” status.  The Griffon, the first shipwreck on the upper Great Lakes, is the most searched for vessel, and the Edmund Fitzgerald, the most famous modern shipwreck and the subject of a popular song, is known worldwide.  Helped by “Captain Santa” the Rouse Simmons was such a source of joy and celebration that her loss affected thousands of people, and the story, even 100 years later, continues to move us.”

“For about 40 years, between the end of the financial crisis of 1873 and the beginning of World War I in 1914, Christmas Tree Ships flourished as a traditional and welcome source of holiday trees for urbanites in prairie ports.”

“But the Great Lakes have one very unique advantage:  they contain the best-preserved shipwrecks in the world!”

Overall, the Christmas Tree Ship is a very informative book about the sinking of the famous ship but it also gives great details about Christmas trees, ships on the Great Lakes, etc.  I highly recommend it!

Book Source:  I purchased an autograph copy from The Peninsula Bookman in Fish Creek Wisconsin.

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