Christmas legends


In this holiday season we often see or hear the story of “The Christmas tree Ship.” Indeed, it was popularized in Dwight Boyer’s book “Great Stories of the Great Lakes” in 1966. Yet in repeated versions of the story there are some important facts that are rarely, if ever mentioned.

 For those of you not presently familiar with the story of the Christmas tree ship and her wreck it is good to do a bit of review. The schooner ROUSE SIMMONS was 123 feet long and had been constructed by Allen, McClelland & Co. in 1868 at Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1893 she had been purchased by the brothers August and Herman Schuenemann to haul general freight around the lower lakes. The brothers supplemented their seasonal income by hauling Christmas trees down from the northern Lake Michigan ports to the big city of Chicago where the businessmen and industrial workers snatched them up like holiday candy. On November 27th, 1912 (which Boyer erroneously lists as 1913) the SIMMONS was pounded down by a gale while she had aboard a full load of Christmas trees and a crew of sailors and lumberjacks totaling 16 souls- including her captain, Herman Schuenemann. There were no survivors. She was missing until divers found her 59 years later in 165 feet of water 6 miles northeast of Rawley Point in Manitowoc County.

 Holiday legend surrounding the Christmas tree ship has grown over the years spread in large part by the Internet and social media as well as news outlets looking for a seasonal filler story. Recently I saw Captain Herman Schuenemann monikered as “The Santa Claus captain.” Folks- Captain Herman Schuenemann was not a kindly, jolly man who delivered trees to those in need and then sat with children on his knee and asked about their fondest Christmas wishes. He was a business man and the SIMMONS was his family business. Every one of those trees he purchased from the lumber camps and then hauled down to urban Chicago to sell at a handy profit. Normally the operations of a schooner had a margin of profit so narrow that such a final trip of the season represented the entire season’s profit. You can bet that as the Schuenemann family made those Christmas tree trips they didn’t give away a single pine needle. This was a profitable venture that kept the family business running. That’s why they did it for more than a decade.


Captain Herman Schuenemann (center)

The part of the story that you rarely, if ever are told is that Captain Herman Schuenemann, was not the only skipper of a Christmas tree ship, there were in fact may others. Interestingly, Captain Herman Schuenemann  was not the only one in his family business hauling green joy down the lake… he had a brother, who was also lost when his tree-hauling schooner was swallowed by Lake Michigan. August Schuenemann was engaged in the Christmas tree trade before his brother Herman became a vessel master. He too was not in it for the purpose of bringing holiday joy to the masses in Chicago, but to instead round out the sailing season with a profit. In November of 1898 August Schuenemann was the master of the schooner S. THAL. The boat had taken aboard a full load of trees at Sturgeon Bay and headed to Chicago. Built in Oshkosh, Wisconsin in 1867 the THAL was just 75 feet long, 20 feet wide and 4 and ½ feet in depth. No doubt she was loaded to the gunnels as the Schuenemann family was determined to get every penny out of this trip.

 Lake Michigan put an end to Captain August Schuenemann’s career as she whipped up a heavy gale and on November 9th, the THAL came ashore… in pieces.

 Parts of the little schooner were scattered along the beach from Glencoe to Winnetka. Her stem and her lifeboat both washed up as the largest hunks of the boat. No bodies were reported as recovered and the THAL with her crew of three never became a part of Great Lakes Christmas lore. They were just a small footnote the November 10th storm that raged through following day. Thus, the THAL along with her crew and Christmas tree cargo were forgotten. So, you almost never heard of the other Christmas tree ship that was commanded by the older brother of the legendary Christmas tree ship. That’s the problem with legends- they tend to over-shadow the truth and fill the gaps with holiday sweetness.

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Okay folks... if you've not heard, I had a computer crash on November 29th, 2020. In it I lost some data as well as all of my software. Thank you Windows 10. Fortunately, I had a lot of things backed up, and my next book was well secured (Whew!) as were the two novels I'm working on. Now the only problem has been buying new software and getting it installed. 

Give me until January and I'll have some new shipwreck posts to share... perhaps sooner... we'll see how the next few days add up.

BOOK 20... is finished!


Book 20, "The Witch of November" is finished. Ready to send to the publisher! 

Should come out in the spring... depending on COVID lockdowns.

NEW Book on the way!

My next book will be titled "The Witch of November" and it's coming out in the spring of 2021!

See the video


One technique that I've developed over the years in my writing is what I call "going farther."

(by the way folks- the proper word is "farther" not "further" the word further means to promote... my wife hates it when I correct her on that one... ha.)

What I mean by that is to gather all the details, then look at the smallest of the details and when you think you have all of the questions answered- dig deeper... a lot deeper. Along the way you'll always find a forgotten fact or perhaps even some bad history that has been dittoed over and over again by other historians.

Here is a fun example.

A story that I was working on for my next shipwreck book had one of those tiny details that happened to lead to the little steamship Empire. Of course in my work I cannot simply just name that vessel. I need to go farther and learn all about her. In that process I learned that she was launched in the year 1861... not far enough- go farther... Digging a bit farther I found that she was launched on February 27th, 1861. Okay... but that's not enough... go farther and find out as much as I can about her launching.

Now, in order to do that I can delve into the old newspapers and read the "Marine Intelligence" sections. But, for time's sake I decided to use one of the best tools that any Great Lakes maritime researcher can use. Walter Lewis' Maritime History of the Great Lakes website... The search there is easy- search by name of the vessel, select the year 1861 from the side menu and command that I want to see the results in order from oldest to newest- so I can get to February faster. BINGO!

I got this:

THE NEW PROPELLER. - The new propeller built by Quayle & Martin, at Cleveland, for the Northern Transportation Company, is ready for launching, and will probably slide into the water this afternoon. She is to be called the EMPIRE. 
      Buffalo Commercial Advertiser 
      February 27, 1861 


      THE EMPIRE. - The new N.T. Co. propeller EMPIRE was successfully launched from the yard of her builders, Messrs. Quayle & Martin, Cleveland, at 2 o'clock Tuesday afternoon. Her dimensions are- length 150 feet; beam 26 1/2 feet; depth of hold 12 feet. Her tonnage will be about 370. She is a neat, serviceable looking boat. The EMPIRE was yesterday towed up to the Cuyahoga Furnace Works where she will take on her machinery. 
      Buffalo Commercial Advertiser 
      February 28, 1861 

Notice that all of the modern sources said she was launched on February 27th... but... was that a Tuesday? 

Go farther...

Next I pulled out on of my most handy tools used in all of my writing. It came as the back cover of a day-planner and is a little table that allows you to look up any year from 1801 to 2050 and then find out what day of the week any given date fell upon. I use this over and over to add detail to all of my stories. 

In this case we see that the Tuesday that saw the launch of the little insignificant steamer was NOT the 27th as all of the modern sources say... rather the boat was actually launched on the 26th of February.

So, how did this happen and how did other researchers get it wrong?

Easy- someone went to that newspaper and read the first blurb which says clearly that the the new lakeboat "...will probably slide into the water this afternoon." and that newspaper is dated the 27th. However, it is very easy to forget that these were the days of hand-set newspapers and not the internet digital media. Thus, the news that is published on the 27th actually reflects what happened, or was scheduled to happen the day before. That's because the reporters needed to turn in the story and then the typesetter needed to put it into the paper which went through the printing press overnight. 

Also, others don't go as much farther as I like to.

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Here is a little fun fact about the later whaleback lakeboats. 

For our purposes today we're going to use the whaleback steamer JOHN ERICSSON. Launched on July 11th, 1896 the ERICSSON was the an ultra modern steamship of the Victorian era and she was the first of the whalebacks to have her pilothouse forward. She was fast and powerful enough to tow the largest whaleback barge as her consort with the greatest of efficiency.

She also had a unique feature seen only on some of the later whalebacks...

She had three lamp posts along the center of her spardeck.

Looking closely you can see them here as well as on her whaleback barge.

Zooming in more closely you can see the globe and the illumination filament.

In this image you can clearly see that these were not oil lamps.

Knowing that when Alexander McDougall launched his World's Fair whaleback passenger steamer CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS in late 1892 she was fitted out in the spring of 1893 with electric lights all the way throughout! So it is quite possible that the lamp posts on the ERICSSON also supported electric deck lamps.

On June 3rd, 1901 the ERICSSON changed owners as she came under the management of the "Steel Trust" of the Pittsburgh Steamship Company. Sometime thereafter the deck lamps were removed...

...yet the lamp posts remained and were used exclusively to support her her lifeline, as seen in this image. Her aft mast was also moved from her deckhouse to the spar deck.

Later, when her spar deck was converted to have standard hatches, the lamp posts were removed.

Just some fun tid-bits on vintage freighters of the Great Lakes for you folks.

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In case you don't know, I'm a model lakeboat builder. Those of us who are AD/HD must always be doing something, and through the years of my aviation education and career, this was my outlet, relaxation and distraction... it kept me sane. In college some of the guys called me "Geppetto" because I'd come home on my bicycle with a few sheets of balsa wood, go into my room and as over the weeks,  they walked by and looked in the sheets would turn into cuttings and soon a lake freighter would arise from the cuttings. This is the tale of  how one such boat was wrecked and needed major reconstructive surgery. 
I hadn't worked on one the boats to this extent in 20 years... do I still have the "touch"?

"She's so primitive," was the comment that I got from Great Lakes wooden ships expert Pat Labadie when we were discussing the steamer KEYSTONE. It was the mid 1990s and I was writing her story for my 1997 book, "Mysteries and Histories" of the Great Lakes. Once I saw her picture, which Pat had sent to me, I was really hooked on the little boat. So much so that I built an R/C model of her in my 10.0 scale (10 inches is equal to 100 feet). When finished she was 16.3 inches long and incorporated some new innovations in my fleet of boats (which totaled 54 at that time). First, her hull was sheathed with wooden coffee stirrer sticks. They were just the right size to represent hull timbers and they looked great. Secondly, she would have a retractable steering pole (over the years I'd found that the thing that breaks the most on these boats was always the steering pole- this would solve that issue). Lastly, she was equipped with reverse. A double pull, double throw micro switch would reverse the polarity on the RE-14 motor when the throttle arm went past "stop" and the boat would reverse.
Far away from shore on Lake Huron.
This is not the best photo, it was take by my late father and
his pictures were often out of focus. He told me at the time
that she was sinking because in the distance she looked
low in the water. "This is the last you'll see of her," he said.
The boat came out great and in 2000 I took her up to Tawas and ran her on the open lake

Later I carried her down to Florida and parked her as a display at my father-in-law's condo in Jacksonville. I Left the radio equipment there too because his condo had a terrific pond behind it. When we'd visit him I'd take her for a run. After our kids were born they liked to watch... not because they liked the boat, but because they were tickled by the fact that the minnows chased after the propeller.

In 2018, my father-in-law contracted Alzheimer's and had to move from Florida to Maryland and live with us. When the movers packed his belongings they took the KEYSTONE and just chucked her into a box! When his stuff arrived here, I opened the box and was horrified to see that they had shipped me a shipwreck. The KEYSTONE was smashed up pretty bad.
She was a disaster. Her masts were all down, the aft spar snapped...
The forward open air bridge was smashed down with the uprights bent like tossed spaghetti. Her starboard bridge wing was crushed and shattered and her rail was ripped loose...

Her stack was shipped and her rails had been impacted on both sides.
Aft, her starboard rail was crushed as was the overhang of her cabin..

Although her rails were dented, her hull was remarkably undamaged. I only found one longitudinal crack that was easily mended with some CA (cyanoacrylate, or "super glue"). It appears as if my use of those pine stir sticks rather than sealed balsa wood saved the her hull.She only had external damage. Also her propeller and rudder were in good shape, *whew*

Most challenging would be the bow and the bridge wing. 

To the workbench we would go and make good use of the COVID lockdown.

One good thing was that her movable steering pole had broken off in one piece. It would go back on easily.

I decided to do the easy stuff first, just to give me confidence- so the aft work went ahead. The sprung fence rail was an easy fix. I started by fitting it right where it had been and clamping it in place.

Then I lifted the smashed deckhouse overhang back into place and CA'd it. Next I clamped every other post and CA'd the ones in between.

The aft most post could be bent back into position, but the two outward of it were too badly damaged and had to be removed. I've been working these little metal posts for 35 years, so extracting these was just a matter of taking some needle nose pliers, giving each a gentle twist and they came right out leaving a clean hole. I replaced each with an oversized piece of stock and CA'd them in place. Once dry, I nipped off the excess with nail clippers.

Back to the bow... ugh...first things first... I had to stabilize the bow rail. It had taken a fairly good impact.

Later I also had to re-glue the anchor stock into its stowed position... after a while it was bugging me.

And now the crushed bridge... there were a few lucky breaks here...

First off, both of the rails for the open air pilothouse were not twisted or mangled. They broke away intact and kept their original shape.

Likewise the mid rail for the wing was also holding most of its original shape...

The upper rail came off exactly in shape. All I really needed to do was replace the mangled uprights and set the rails back into place.

 What needed to be done to the bridge platform was to fit the pieces back together like jigsaw puzzle and CA them in place.

Another lucky thing was the fact that I'd used heavier steel for the three bridge wing supports (arrow). When the impact took place they broke loose, but did not deform. Once the wing platform was back in place, the supports simply dropped through their original holes and I CA'd them in place.

These smashes were more of a cosmetic fix.

They were easily fixed with wood filler and some sanding while the forward bridge work was drying.

Now that the bridge wing was done it was time to fix the open air pilothouse... this would take some improvisation. Hey, I'm Polish, I was born to improvise and adapt stuff...

In order to get the spacing exactly right between the rails I had to create some tools. First were these balsa wood spacers...

The first spacers were simply little blocks to hold up the rail. I'd already placed an over sized upright in each of the original holes on the four corners of the pilothouse roof. I would CA the upright in each corner and let them dry. Then it was time for her to go to the hairdresser... 

The spacers for the upper rail had to be the right distance off the roof, plus hold the rail in place. The blocks were so light weight that a sneeze or the slightest bump would knock them out of position. So, I needed to create some little hair pins to hold them in place.

My daughter said it looked like the boat was at the beauty shop getting her hair done.

Adding a few straight pins made it look even more like a beauty shop visit.

Once it was dry I put in oversized  upright stock and CA'd them into place. Once dry, I clipped the extra away with my trusty nail clippers.

This was one of those jobs that when I finished I said, "I just cannot wait to paint this" so I did... and it looked great!

Next I needed to replace that stinking aft mast. It was in a hole through the aft cabin overhang and into the deck. First I cut it off level with the rooftop, then I tried to drill it out. Nope, not gonna work. I tried the old twist method in hope that it would break free... not gonna happen. Finally I got ticked off at it and figuring I'd fix whatever damage resulted, I took the needle nose pliers and I snapped it in half!

The dang thing popped out as clean as can be!

I cut off the top portion of the aft mast and its cross "T" and made a paper sleeve to bond that to a new section of dowel for the lower mast. You really have to look to see the repair.

Next the prow strake needed to be rebuilt because the one that broke off was simply gone.
Taking a piece of paper and an engineer's pencil I traced the exact outline of the one on the port side and then used that to make a duplicate out of another stir stick. I then took that piece and boiled it in water to make it flexible. Then clamped it to the curve of the prow to give it the proper shape once it dried out.

Painted it and bingo! 

After repainting the roof of the aft cabin I replaced the stack and lifeboat.

Now it was time to glue the steering pole back in its place...

One drop of CD did the trick.

Now she was re-rigged.

Once the rigging was re-strung she was as good as new.

In fact there I did make a change. I replaced the cotton thread with poly because it attracts less dust over they years.

Yet, there was one final detail... I had to add Captain Carelton Graves at the helm. He was the KEYSTONE's long time master. This is the only figure of a person on any of my models.
And so once again she takes her place among my fleet...

...with Captain Graves standing a commodore. 
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