Written by Chief Petty Officer Alan Haraf.
Loaded with more than 1,300 Christmas trees from northern Michigan, the crew of Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw once again served as Chicago’s Christmas Ship, continuing a tradition from the late 1800s in Chicago and resurrected 13 years ago.
The original Christmas Ship, the schooner Rousse Simmons, made the same transit down Lake Michigan each year, bringing trees and wreaths to the people of Chicago. Setting up shop along the Chicago River in downtown, Capt. Herman Shuenamann and his crew became a well known and expected group as each Christmas season neared.
During their journey in 1912, Schuenamann encountered a strong November storm. High winds and seas battered his ship and cargo of more than 5,000 trees. By the time he reached the area off of Kewaunee, Wis., members of the Kewaunee Life-Saving Station had spotted the ship low in the water with tattered sails and flying its flag at half mast to signal that it was in distress. Logs from the station show a surfman spotted the Simmons at 2:50 p.m. and alerted station keeper Nelson Craite. However, Craite found the station’s gas tugboat had left earlier in the day and, around 3:10 p.m. telephoned the Two Rivers Station, located just south of Kewaunee. A power boat was launched on what was thought to be a rescue mission, but the Simmons was not seen again.
One hundred years after that fatal journey, the Coast Guard and the Chicago maritime community continue to re-enact bringing trees to deserving families in Chicago.
Capt. Dave Truitt, founding member of Chicago’s Christmas Ship Committee, was instrumental in resurrecting the tradition back in 2000 when the original Mackinaw proudly served as the first Christmas ship.
During the transit down Lake Michigan each year, the Coast Guard and a member of the Christmas Ship Committee aboard the ship conducted a solemn wreath toss near the wreckage of the Rouse Simmons, which was located in 1971.
Cmdr. Michael Davanzo, commanding officer of Mackinaw, addressed the crew on the buoy deck amid howling winds and freezing temperatures, drawing comparisons to the weather the crew of the Rouse Simmons must have experienced. He talked with the crew of 60 about the importance of continuing and honoring traditions established by vessels on the Great Lakes.
Leading the ceremony was Petty Officer 2nd Class Nichol Billow, a food service specialist. During the ceremony, she read the names of those lost, and rang the ship’s bell for each name. The ceremony concluded with moment of silence from the crew. An aircrew from Air Station Traverse City also participated by conducting a wreath toss into lake Michigan near the Chicago Lighthouse before performing a fly-over.
After performing seasonal buoy retrieval operations, the Mackinaw arrived at Navy Pier to an official welcome on Friday, Nov 30, in preparation for the public ceremony and tree offload the next day. Davanzo provided a history of the Christmas Ship tradition to the crowd in attendance before Rear Adm. Mike Parks, 9th Coast Guard District commander, congratulated the Christmas Ship committee and pledged the Coast Guard’s continued support to a great event that brings joy and the spirit of Christmas to so many people in Chicago.
The two-day event culminated with hundreds of youth volunteers and the crew of the Mackinaw unloading the evergreens for distribution into various communities throughout Chicago. While it took nearly five hours to unload the more than 1,300 trees, the smiles from the deserving families as the Christmas Ship tradition lives on was well worth it.