The U.S. Coast Guard is continuing its tradition this Christmas season of honoring a lost Great Lakes schooner that brought Christmas joy to needy families in Chicago. The Rouse Simmons, a three-masted Great Lakes schooner, was lost in Lake Michigan during a November gale in 1912. It went down in a tragic series of events off the coast of Wisconsin near Two Rivers.  The schooner’s historical information posted on Wisconsin Shipwrecks relates a long, and storied ownership and business story. Like many freight hauling ships on the Great Lakes at the time, it had its share of ups and downs.

The last Owner/Captain was Herman Schuenemann. He won his nickname "Captain Santa," due to his annual trip from Michigan’s north country Christmas tree farms to Chicago where he would offer trees for sale. But he really became known for his generosity of giving trees to Chicago residents who weren’t able to afford one.

When the big schooner went down in 1912, it was bound for Chicago with just such a load of trees. It never made it. All 16 crewmen on board including Schuenemann were lost. His wallet washed up on shore years later. Some of the cargo of Christmas trees also washed ashore years after the sinking.

Wisconsin Historical Society
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The US Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, based at Mackinac City near the base of the Mackinac Bridge, has recreated the voyage of the Rouse Simmons for the past 20 years. It left a couple of days ago for the 21st such trip. This year it carries 1,200 Christmas trees for less fortunate Chicago area families. Yesterday (Sunday, November 29), the crew of the cutter dropped a wreath in Lake Michigan at the approximate location where the schooner went down. The Mackinaw is scheduled to arrive in Chicago sometime Thursday.

Normally there is a big celebration when the cutter arrives with its annual load of trees. This year because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak, it will be hardly noticeable. But over 1,000 Chicago area families will get a free Christmas tree this year because the Coast Guard is not letting go of its commitment.

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