Photo courtesy Chicago Historical Society

They called him Captain Santa.

For 25 years, he sailed fresh-cut trees from the northern tip of Lake Michigan to the southwest corner of the Clark Street bridge.

For Chicagoans, his arrival meant one thing: Christmas was just around the corner.

Capt. Herman Schuenemann had used a variety of ships in the late 1800s and early 1900s — the Mary Collins, the Margaret Dal, the Ida, the Truman Moss, the George L. Wren. But it was the Rouse Simmons, a rickety, old three-mast schooner, that the public seemed to embrace.

Word would trickle along the docks, its festive message proclaiming to the streets above: "The 'Christmas Tree Ship' is here!" Thousands of stacked trees, snow still on the branches, filled the decks of the Rouse Simmons, the smell of spruce and pine wafting over the bow.

Schuenemann would tie a Christmas tree atop the main mast, trumpeting the ship's arrival on the Chicago River. He would string colored lights, a novelty at the time, to the 127-foot schooner he co-owned in 1910. His wife, Barbara, and their daughters — Elsie, Hazel and Pearl — would make wreaths and garlands. He even crammed a small cabin aboard, where people could dine and chat with the crew.

It became a social event, according to Tribune accounts.

Schuenemann knew how to sell trees. Forget the middleman — local stores — he sold his trees to the people. The Tribune reported how he would routinely hang a hand-printed sign on the dock: "The Christmas Tree Ship. My prices are the lowest."

Six- to 7-foot trees sold for 25 cents to $1. A few hotels and businesses preordered 20-foot trees and paid more. But some trees were never sold. Schuenemann would give those to poor families, churches and orphanages.

"He was an excellent marketer" and a bit of a showman, said Colleen Henry, a volunteer on the archives committee at St. Pauls United Church of Christ on North Orchard Street in Lincoln Park. The Schuenemanns were members of the church, known in those days as German United Evangelical Lutheran St. Pauls Congregation. Back then, it was on LaSalle and Ohio streets.

St. Pauls will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the "Christmas Tree Ship" on Nov. 18. In attendance will be retired Dr. William Ehling, of Streator — Schuenemann's grandson.

A jovial man, Capt. Schuenemann had a "generosity of spirit," Henry said.

That entrepreneurial and Christian spirit would ferry him to Manistique and Thompson, Mich., where he and his men would venture into the woods and help the locals cut down the trees. After loading up, they would sail home. In all, it took about six weeks. If everything worked out, he would celebrate the holiday with his family in Lincoln Park, a tidy profit in hand.

There were dozens of other tree ships, but Chicagoans trusted Schuenemann. He and his older brother, August, sailed what is believed to be the first boatload of Christmas trees to Chicago in December 1887, according to Tribune files.

But it was risky business. Winter gales and ice were a constant threat.

On Nov. 9, 1898, a storm sank August Schuenemann's ship, the S. Thal, near Glencoe. He and his four-man crew drowned, the Tribune reported.

Herman, who would have been aboard, had stayed behind to care for the family lumber business and tend to his wife, who had given birth Oct. 6 to twins Hazel and Pearl. The girls were baptized at St. Pauls less than three weeks after August died.

Schuenemann carried on the family business. Year after year, he made the Christmas tree voyage. But in November 1912, disaster struck again.

After making the 300-mile trip Michigan's Upper Peninsula, Schuenemann loaded thousands of trees aboard the 44-year-old schooner.

On Nov. 21, weather conditions were deteriorating when the Rouse Simmons started to bob home. As temperatures dropped, sheets of rain and 50-mph winds kicked up waves, some as high as 20 feet, over the deck. Icy spray coated the trees, the weight pushing the ship's hull lower into the water.