Post written by Petty Officer 3rd Class George Degener.
As the holiday season descends on Chicago and lights and decorations swathe the city streets, a Great Lakes icon sits along the waterfront at Navy Pier.
The Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, with a Christmas tree tied to its mast and a wreath placed on the superstructure, lies with its decks filled with more than 1,200 fir trees destined for the homes of deserving families in the Chicago area.
In 2000, the original Mackinaw’s crew began collecting Christmas trees from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to bring them south through Lake Michigan to Chicago. After the decommissioning of the first Mackinaw (WAGB 83), the new Mackinaw (WLBB 30) has taken up the tradition started by Capt. Herman Schuenemann, master of the three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons, the original “Christmas Tree Ship” that delivered thousands of trees to Chicago families in the early 1900’s. Rouse Simmons foundered and sank near Two Rivers, Wis., on Nov. 23, 1912, with all 17 souls onboard lost.
“The Christmas tree is a symbol of the holiday season that brings thoughts of family and home,” said Rear Adm. Michael Parks, commander of the Ninth Coast Guard District. “The fact that the Coast Guard can be part of bringing that symbol to less fortunate families in the Chicago area is truly heartwarming.”
Today, Chicago’s Christmas Ship Committee works with the Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary to re-create the celebrated “Christmas Ship.” Under the supervision of volunteers from Marine Safety Unit Chicago, Coast Guard Auxiliary and Mackinaw’s crew, the trees are loaded into trucks by local youth volunteers, including Sea Cadets, Sea Scouts and Young Marines. Chicago’s Ada S. McKinley Community Services selects the tree recipients and then distributes them to families throughout the city.
Mackinaw’s crew took time out of their fall buoy run as part of Operation Fall Retrieve, the largest domestic aids-to-navigation operation, and traveled almost the exact same route that Capt. Schuenemann and the Rouse Simmons traveled in the early 1900’s. During the journey, Mackinaw crewmembers made a wreath out of branches from the trees and dropped it over the spot where the Rouse Simmons and its crew settled on the bottom of Lake Michigan.
“We followed a very similar path and experienced some very similar weather to what Capt. Schuenemann and the sailing vessel Rouse Simmons did on that cold November night in 1912,” said Cmdr. Scott Smith, Mackinaw’s commanding officer. “It is with great pride that the Coast Guard, including the Marine Safety Unit, the Auxiliary and the Cutter Mackinaw, has been able to partner with the entire Chicago marine community to come together on a project that serves so many deserving families in the Chicago metropolitan area.”
In the years that both the old and new Mackinaw have acted as Chicago’s Christmas Ship, the Coast Guard has helped to deliver more than 10,000 trees and bring the classic evergreen symbol of the holiday spirit into thousands of homes that would otherwise be without.
The Chicago Christmas Ship Committee has taken their motto from the words of Ruthie Gibson, who as a 4-year-old girl waiting for the Rouse Simmons in 1912, refused to leave the dock, saying, “It just won’t be Christmas without a Christmas tree.”