Schooner Days No. DCCXXIII
Christmas Tree Ship
By C.H.J. Snider
We never had a Christmas tree fleet on Lake Ontario, though individual vessels sometimes came home in December with spruce or hemlock seized to the lanyards of the main shrouds, to show they had made a late trip and were going to celebrate Yuletide. You could sometimes get a Christmas tree from hookers like the Hope or the Snow Bird or Newsboy in Toronto's old West Market street slip, but the Christmas tree had not been so commercialize, in Canada in the nineteenth century when the schooners flourished, as it is now.
That December they laid the Mataafa up in South Chicago - that would be in '99, before she broke in two on the beach at Duluth, although the two halves were salvaged and she's going yet - brother Roy, who was in the Mataafa, got his first glimpse of the Windy City, as Chicago was then called. Among the sights was the Christmas tree fleet in the Calumet basin.
There were at least fifty little schooners there, with spruce, cedar, or hemlock trees at their mastheads, signaling over the rooftops and railway tracks. "Here they are, folks, fresh cut Michigan Christmas trees; come and get 'em. Your pick for a quarter of a dollar!"
If the demand was good the price went up. if not, the unsold trees were fuel for the cabin stove, for many of these little vessels, wintered where they were caught by the frost, and their crews lived aboard.
The vessels were fore-and-afters of from fifty to three hundred tons carrying capacity, a few scows among them, but most of moulded model. The cordwood fuel trade still flourished in the west and some of these vessels were engaged regularly in that. Others were sand, stone, grain and lumber hookers, or carriers of market goods and country produce. Christmas tree cargoes were post-season, something to pay off the bills for tugs, groceries and chandlery that had accumulated for the season.
When freights fell and freeze-ins threatened, these Lake Michigan coasters would range as far north as Manitowoc or the north end of the Michigan peninsula to pick up Christmas trees. They would either pirate the second growth pines and firs, going ashore in lonely places with saws and axes, and towing their plunder out in yawlboats, or they would load tree cargoes already cut and piled for shipment by farmers and woodsmen.
SHIPS IN THE WOODS
Sometimes the vessels acted as merchants, all the labor, risk and profit of the trip - which might take a month - going to the crew. Sometimes it was simply another freight, the vessel carrying a consignment of Christmas trees just as she would a cargo of potatoes or potash.
How many trees they could carry was less a question of tonnage than of deck area, for Christmas trees, balloons and ladies' hats are largely a bulky cargo. They would drop as many trees as they could down the hatches and then pile them on deck level with the bulwarks and sometimes as much as twenty feet above them. The close-reefed sails would be mastheaded, so that the booms would clear the top of the cargo. with a twenty-foot deck load the ablest schooner would be nothing but a floating haystack.
She would not be able to sail at all except with a free wind. The Christmas tree fleet sometimes had to wait for weeks to complete their voyages after loading, because strong winds might blow them over and headwinds would certainly blow them back. With their reefed sails away aloft like topsails, and the mass of evergreen brush catching the wind, they had no counterbalancing weight of cargo below decks to steady them, for the hold full of little bushes would not weigh as much as what was piled above the deck. And every day they waited for the weather they would worry about losing their market, for there are few things less saleable than a Christmas tree the day after Christmas.
However, the desired "smooth" or "slant" usually came in time, for northerly winds are quite as plentiful as Christmas trees on Lake Michigan in December. So they would arrive off Chicago breakwater, snowed and frosted up to the crosstrees maybe, and would be hurried in through the harbor ice and into the creek around Twelfth street bridge or Water street where flourished the bars wherein Mr. Dooley "saw by the pa-pers"all that fin-de-siecle wisdom of a hardworking, hard playing century, poor in pelf but rich in self-reliance.
VANISHED IN A DECADE
It was strange that by ten years after brother Roy's first sight of the smoke porkopolis the Christmas tree fleet had melted down like a snowman. The hookers became fewer because trucks, railways and whalebacks were taking away their freights. Every autumn gale put one, two, or ten of them out of business, and there was practically no building in their class in the twentieth century. The Christmas tree voyage became longer and longer, as the second growth of the nearby forests of Michigan and Wisconsin was cropped faster than it grew. Only the largest lakers could carry enough Christmas trees to make these long voyages profitable, but the largest lakers, like the small ones, were getting old and creaky at the joints. By 1912 when we won the Great Lakes championship in Chicago with the Patricia, there were only five of the big schooners to be found, the Kelderhouse, Lake Forest, Resumption, Butcher Boy and Rouse Simmons. The others had become wrecks or tow-barges. When we came back for the championship in 1923 - and won it again - the only schooners left in Chicago carried beer.
Thirty-two shipping days before Christmas, 1812, Hermann Schueneman loaded the Rouse Simmons with Christmas trees away up at Manistique in Northern Michigan for the Chicago market.
Herman was the last exponent of the Christmas tree trade, and the Rouse Simmons was the last survivor of the Christmas tree fleet out of Chicago. She was a long lanky bird, three masted, lofty in spars and comparatively shallow in the hold. So were all the Lake Michigan schooners since the barquentine City of Chicago, built in 861, which would carry half her cargo on deck, and therefore got quick despatch in the lumber trade.
Every spring Gus fitted the Rouse Simmons out in hope that general lake freighting would be better this year than last, but whaleback pigs and 600-ft. steamers, to say nothing of railways and motor trucks, were inexorably crowding schooners into the boneyard. Every fall he said, well, it had been a petty hard season, but perhaps the Christmas tree trip would help him break even. So he would make one more shot at it, even if he had to sail six hundred miles, or to the North Pole and back.
Trees were, of course, getting scarcer with each winter's wastage, and the trip for them had become so long that few vessels could afford to make it. Often it took a month to get to Manistique and back to Chicago, under sail. What with calms, gales, or headwinds it might take a month to go one way. But you could always bank on the Rouse Simmons being in with Christmas trees before the river froze. She had been nicknamed the "Rouse-mit-'em," and the "Wake-me-early," but she became known far and wide as the Christmas Tree Ship.
The Simmons made a good run to Manistique with southerly winds, and loaded thousands of little fragrant trees, the turpentine and resin and balsam oozing pungently on the cold air from their fresh chopped butts. Her sails, close reefed, were triced up till the throat halliards were two blocks, and the booms rested on lumber crutches ten feet above their regular saddles. This was to allow them to swing across the sweet scented deckload, for the trees were piled so high above the bulwarks that the ship looked like a haymow with the roof off. Then the south wind which had brought the Simmons down the lake swung obligingly to the north, and blew a gagger. Lake Michigan, in the lee of the shore, was beaten into deceptive smoothness. It was blowing so hard that inland hills smoked like wave crests, as the north wind whipped the new fallen snow from their tops.
"Gus must be in a great hurry to get them trees on the market," said Capt. Hanson, of the Butcher Boy of Michigan City, a bigger and older schooner than the Simmons, and owned by the Chicago Transport Co. "I wouldn't go out into this blow for all the trees in the woods. Those boys'll be lucky if they eve see Christmas."
"Well, he owns the Simmons," said his mate, "and it's his own funeral. He figured it would put him into Chicago Creek in twenty-four hours if he never set nothing but the raffee and headsails in her."
"Hell!" commented Capt. Hanson, who was not a swearing person.
The Simmons disappeared from view like a shot out of a gun. Capt. Scheuneman showed good judgment by pulled her to the smooth water along the western shore of Lake Michigan. A hundred miles on her way she was tearing past Keewaunee - and in trouble. Her sails were furled or blown away and her ragged Stars and Stripes were half mast in a distress signal. She was five miles out.
The Keewaunee Coast Guard could not catch her, but sent word to Capt. Logye of the Two Rivers Coast Guard that she was coming. The Two Rivers men put off in their power boat at once to intercept her, but though they searched till dark they did not find even a floating Christmas tree. The Simmons had dropped out of sight with all hands; on the 23rd of November, 1912.
After that Santa Claus sent Chicago its Christmas trees by train, truck or airmail.