Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

The tragic story of “The Christmas Tree Ship” November 30, 2011


A delightful holiday musical for the entire family. It’s the true story of a Great Lakes schooner, whose captain risks life and limb to transport Christmas trees to the German immigrants in Chicago during the late 1800’s. The result was the Christmas tree tradition spread throughout the Midwest and America.

Attend The Merlin Players’ production of The Christmas Schooner, opening Friday, December 2, at the Paradise Center for the Arts in historic downtown Faribault, and you’ll never view a Christmas tree in quite the same way. Guaranteed, you’ll appreciate your tree a whole lot more and the ease with which you can pull yours from storage, browse in a Christmas tree lot or tromp through the woods to chop down your own.

Allow me to take you 6 ½ hours away from Faribault to eastern Wisconsin, to Rawley Point, a piece of land that juts into Lake Michigan in Point Beach State Forest five miles north of Two Rivers.

Rawley Point at Point Beach State Forest along Lake Michigan in early August.

Off this point 26 ships sank or became stranded, including the steamship Vernon, which broke up in stormy waters in 1877 with 52 lives lost. Only one seaman survived.

Then there’s the Rouse Simmons schooner, widely known as “The Christmas Tree Ship.” With Captain Herman Schuenemann at the helm, the ship left Thompson, Michigan, on November 22, 1912, bound for Chicago with a holiday cargo of Upper Peninsula Christmas trees. (Sorry, but I can’t explain the discrepancy in dates between the play promo and the true date of the schooner’s demise.)

A painting of the Christmas Tree Schooner at the Great Lakes Coast Guard Museum in Two Rivers.

The schooner, with 16 crew members, never reached Chicago. Not until 59 years later was she found in 170 feet of water off Rawley Point, her Christmas trees still stashed in her hold. The schooner remains preserved in the icy waters of Lake Michigan.

The beach at Rawley Point on a Sunday afternoon in August.

Walking Rawley Point beach on an August afternoon, the only hazards are stinky dead fish and driftwood.

The U.S. Coast Guard's erector style lighthouse at Rawley Point rises 113 feet above Lake Michigan. The light is one of the largest and brightest on the Great Lakes and can be seen from 19 miles away.

This past summer my family visited Point Beach State Forest and attractions in nearby Two Rivers, all within an hour’s drive of my second daughter’s home in Appleton, Wisconsin. On that Sunday afternoon, strolling along the sandy beach near Rawley Point Lighthouse, it seemed impossible that Lake Michigan could transform into stormy waters that would become a grave for so many.

But it did.

Now you can experience the touching and tragic story of “The Christmas Tree Ship” via The Merlin Players’ The Christmas Schooner production. I saw this performance several years ago at the Paradise.

I cried.

I’ve never cried before at a play.

The historic Rogers Street Fishing Village includes the 1886 Two Rivers' North Pier Lighthouse, to the right.

Inside the Coast Guard museum, a worker points to a model of the Rawley Point Lighthouse, which was moved from a French exhibit at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 to Rawley Point.

You'll find information and artifacts from area shipwrecks at the fishing village and museum.

FYI: Performances of The Christmas Schooner are set for 7:30 p.m. December 2, 3, 8, 9 and 10 and at 2 p.m. December 4 and 11 at the Paradise Center for the Arts, 321 Central Avenue, Faribault. Admission is $14 for adults and $9 for those 12 and under. For tickets, call (507) 332-7372 or stop in during box office hours, from noon to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday or from noon to 8 p.m. Thursday.

I’d highly-recommend buying tickets in advance.

CLICK HERE for information about the Rouse Simmons schooner from the Wisconsin Historical Society.

CLICK HERE for info about Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

CLICK HERE for info on Point Beach State Forest.

CLICK HERE to read a previous post I wrote about the Hamilton Wood Type Museum in Two Rivers.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling