LifestyleKeeping Captain Santa's legacy alive: Unique Christmas tree shopping on a ship in Chicago

Keeping Captain Santa's legacy alive: Unique Christmas tree shopping on a ship in Chicago

A ship with a Christmas tree on board
A ship with a Christmas tree on board
Images source: © Getty Images | Westend61
12:16 PM EST, December 22, 2023

Chicago, the third largest city in the United States, is a hotbed for modern architecture, traditional American cuisine, and numerous cultural centers. The city is visited by 40 million tourists annually and has 2.6 million inhabitants.

The task of purchasing a Christmas tree in Chicago has been an interesting venture for the last 23 years, with sales conducted on a ship. This unique tradition pays homage to a tragic incident that occurred in 1912.

Christmas trees on the ship
Christmas trees on the ship© Picryl | Defense Visual Information Distribution Service

An extraordinary tale: Christmas trees sold on a ship in Chicago

Holidays in the United States are celebrated with particular gusto, and Chicago is no exception. As early as the 19th century, the influx of German immigrants to the city popularized the custom of decorating Christmas trees, showing that the holiday season could also be a profitable venture.

Seeing a business opportunity in this, Herman Schuenemann set out to capture the essence of Christmas spirit in a peculiar way. He decided to assume the persona of Santa Claus. However, instead of a sleigh, Schuenemann operated from a ship where he sold Christmas trees. The Rouse Simmons schooner, from where he operated, became a popular spot under the Clark Street bridge. Earning the nickname "Captain Santa", Schuenemann quickly rose to prominence.

At the end of November in 1912, Chicago's inhabitants eagerly awaited the arrival of the festive ship. However, unease set in when the ship failed to appear. Days later, a search operation by the city authorities confirmed everyone's worst fears. The wreckage of the Rouse Simmons was only found 50 years later, and the cause of its sinking remains a mystery.

Reviving a cherished tradition

After "Captain Santa" Schuenemann's tragic end, his remnant was discovered with the shipwreck. In the year 2000, the US Coast Guard made a decision to rekindle the forgotten tradition. Ever since, the Mackinaw ship, filled to the brim with Christmas trees, anchors at the Navy Pier port annually, allowing residents to carry on buying their trees in this unique, historic manner.

Related content