Written by Chief Petty Officer Alan Haraf
“As we slowly glide into this port, the frost hangs in the air. The bustle of the city streets, in the distance you can hear. The pier sparkles festive, on this cold December day, when Big Mac comes to this harbor to give Christmas trees away.”
– Lee Murdock, folksinger.
For the past 15 years, the annual re-enactment of the original Christmas Ship, Rouse Simmons, by Chicago’s maritime community and the Coast Guard has resurrected a storied tradition dating back to the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. People have come to know the Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw as the modern day Christmas Ship, and some await its arrival the same way people did on the banks of the Chicago River more than 100 years ago.
Carrying more than 1,200 Christmas trees from northern Michigan for needy families in Chicago, “Big Mac” arrived in Chicago on Dec. 4 for two days of hustle and bustle.
The crew and members of the Christmas Ship Committee decked the halls, well actually the decks, with lights and trees on Dec. 5. Meanwhile, Coast Guard Auxiliarists and other crew members provided educational tours to students from nearby schools.
Then, on a chilly morning, Dec. 6, festivities encompassing a choir of Christmas music, a memorial salute to mariners lost at sea, a wreath drop into Lake Michigan by a Chicago Fire Department helicopter unit, and Christmas wishes by representatives of the Committee and Coast Guard culminated with the presentation of the ceremonial first Christmas tree to a representative family.
“Over a hundred years ago, the schooner Rouse Simons, loaded with over 5,000 Christmas trees set sail for Chicago’s dockside markets. With a full deck load of evergreen trees, carrying the spicy scent of spruce and balsam, she confronted a rising gale storm,” said Cmdr. Vasilios Tasikas, commanding officer of the Mackinaw. “A century later, we honor the traditions of early sailing ships on the Great Lakes and the legacy of the Rouse Simons.”
“To me, the Christmas tree is a symbol of the Holiday season, and it brings thoughts of family and home,” said Capt. Amy Cocanour, commander of Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan. “Over the last 14 years, the Coast Guard has helped bring more than 18,000 trees to Chicago. This remarkable accomplishment has undoubtedly brought families closer, and made the holidays more cheerful for nearly 100,000 residents.”
Cocanour also mentioned that the Christmas tree visit is a natural kind of humanitarian mission for the Coast Guard.
“Bringing these Christmas trees, these symbols of this special season, to the families of the Chicago metropolitan area is one facet of how we serve,” she said.
Hundreds of Santa’s helpers, the crew of the Mackinaw and volunteers from area youth organizations, spent the next three hours unloading the trees and packing them into trucks destined for identified community groups for distribution to needy families.
Dave Truitt, one of the founding members of the Christmas Ship Committee, is proud of the partnerships in this annual event and what it means to the city and maritime community.
“From the very beginning, we were fortunate to have many strong partners. The most important partners have been the United States Coast Guard and the Coast Guard Auxiliary,” said Truitt.
“The marine community worries about the people who live inland who are having problems, and some of them need rescuing, too. And so if was right down the Coast Guard’s line to help us bring these trees to a lot of people who may not otherwise have Christmas.”
The Mackinaw and crew combine the Christmas tree event with their annual buoy retrieval operations on Lake Michigan.
The original Christmas Ship sank off of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, in November 1913 in a strong storm during its annual transit to Chicago. It was days before word reached the people of Chicago, who were devastated by the news. In 1971, divers located the remains of the Rouse Simmons in 170 feet of water with trees still strapped to the deck.
In 1914, the city of Chicago held a memorial for Captain Herman Schuenemann and his crew by lighting a giant tree downtown. It was attended by thousands of citizens and it began the tradition of the city’s annual Christmas tree, one that continues today.