Preserving Our Past: Celebrating the Spirit of the Christmas Tree Ship
The history of the Great Lakes echoes loudly in the present day. These waters’ unique maritime heritage continues to connect communities across the region and beyond. Join the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation this holiday season as we come together to celebrate these historical ties and the story of the Christmas Tree Ship. You’ll hear the tale of the Rouse Simmons from Cathy Green, Director and CEO of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, and learn how to create Christmas Tree Ship-themed cookies from Kimberly Loy. We’ll also discuss the proposed Wisconsin-Lake Michigan National Marine Sanctuary and how we can all help protect the history beneath the waves.
The wreck of the Rouse Simmons is within the proposed Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary, which possesses exceptional historic, archaeological, and recreational value. This includes two of Wisconsin’s oldest wrecks to date as well as shipwrecks in rare condition with several preserved almost completely intact due to its icy cold, clean waters. Click below to voice your support for designating the proposed Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary so this site can receive the national recognition it deserves.
About the Christmas Tree Ship
Photo credit: Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library
The wrecks that lie off Wisconsin’s Shipwreck Coast tell the story of our nation’s past and speak to the rich heritage of the Great Lakes. One of the most well known of these lost vessels is the Rouse Simmons – the Christmas Tree Ship. Captained by Herman Scheunemann, the Christmas Tree Ship traveled north every year to collect pine trees from Michigan and delivered them to Chicago residents. Captain Scheunemann always donated a portion of his trees to families who were unable to purchase them, earning him the moniker “Captain Santa.” Tragically, in November of 1912, the Rouse Simmons sank with all hands in a violent winter storm off the coast of Wisconsin.
Though the Simmons may be gone, Captain Scheunemann’s tradition of giving continues today. Each year, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw brings over a thousand Christmas trees to Chicago’s Navy Pier. Volunteer organizations, youth groups, and educators unload and deliver these trees to families across the city, helping them celebrate the holidays.
Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Master Chief Petty Officer Alan Haraf
About our participants
Cathy Green is the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowoc.
Ms. Green has studied the maritime history and shipwrecks of the Great Lakes for more than 20 years for a variety of state and federal programs. An innovative educator, an experienced underwater archaeologist and a mariner, Green uses her experiences to tell the stories of Great Lakes maritime history through innovative exhibits and programs and connecting the maritime landscape of today to tales from our shared maritime past.
George Kisiel is the current Chairman of the Chicago’s Christmas Ship Committee, a consortium of individuals from various maritime organizations in Chicago including the Chicago Chapter of The Navy League of The United States, The Chicago Marine Heritage Society, the International Ship Masters’ Association Chicago Lodge #3, and the Chicago Yacht Club. Chicago’s Christmas Ship Committee raises funds, purchases trees and coordinates their distribution to community organizations over the first weekend of December each year in partnership with USCG Sector Lake Michigan, USCG Marine Safety Unit Chicago, and USCGC MACKINAW. Along with his involvement with Chicago’s Christmas Ship, Mr. Kisiel serves on the board of the Chicago Marine Heritage Society, The Great Lakes Naval Museum Foundation, and officiates the Dragon Boat Races for Literacy at Ping Tom Park in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood.
Born and raised in Chicago, Mr. Kisiel is the president of Okrent Kisiel Associates, Inc., a well respected urban planning and consulting firm located in Chicago.
Kimberly Loy has been making iced gingerbread cookies for as along as she can remember. When not serving as the principal of an elementary school in the DC metro area, Kimberly enjoys cooking, baking, kayaking, walking her dogs, and traveling.
Broadly acknowledged as “the premier interpreter of songs and stories about the Great Lakes,” Lee Murdock has uncovered a boundless body of music and stories in his home region. There is an amazing timelessness to this music, as Lee seamlessly blends traditional songs from the days of sail alongside some of his own musical compositions—all depicting some aspect of history and life on the Great Lakes.
It was early in his songwriting career when Lee first discovered the story of the Rouse Simmons. He wrote his song “The Christmas Ship” in 1988, first recorded on his CD “Fertile Ground” in 1989.
The song is a snapshot of a bustling port of Chicago in the days of wooden schooners and brick warehouses and wooden docks lining the Chicago River. The narrative of the Rouse Simmons comes to us through the eyes of a young child growing up in Chicago at the turn of the century. Capturing the indomitable spirit of those hard-working sailors and lumberjacks, his song is also a tale of loss and renewal, and a celebration of a Chicago tradition carried forward by the Captain’s wife, Barbara Schuenemann.
Murdock has recorded 21 CDs and/or books to date, and is a regular participant in the annual remembrance of Chicago’s Christmas Ship.
About the Blue Beacon Series
The National Marine Sanctuary’s Blue Beacon Series aims to bring to light the ocean and Great Lakes’ biggest challenges through panels, lectures, and film screenings hosted around the country in order to build communities of support for marine protected areas. This series builds on the momentum of Capitol Hill Ocean Week, the nation’s premier conference on ocean and Great Lakes policy issues by bringing these important conversations into locally relevant contexts. For more information, visit marinesanctuary.org/bluebeacon.