Written by Walter T. Ham IV
The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw (WLBB-30) is scheduled to participate in the Chicago Christmas Ship program during a Chicago port visit in early December, marking the 20th anniversary of the program and the Coast Guard’s involvement.
During their annual Fall run to remove seasonal Aids to Navigation on Lake Michigan, the Mackinaw crew will deliver 1,200 Christmas trees to brighten the holiday season for families in the nation’s third largest city.
The crew is continuing a tradition that began more than a century ago when brothers August and Herman Schuenemann sold and gave away Christmas trees from the Chicago waterfront.
Sailing on the Great Lakes during the cold, icy and windy late-season winter months was a risky endeavor in the 18thcentury and early 19thcentury. August Schuenemann and his crew were lost during a November storm on Lake Michigan in 1898.
In spite of the risk, Herman Schuenemann continued the family business of making late-season Christmas tree deliveries on his three-masted schooner Rouse Simmons. With a Christmas tree tied to her main mast and the deck loaded with trees, the Rouse Simmons drew large crowds to Chicago waterfront. In addition to selling them, Herman Schuenemann also gave away Christmas trees to deserving families. His nearly 30 years of generosity earned Schuememann the title of “Captain Santa” in news stories. He proudly carried those news clippings inside his wallet and kept them safe in a water-proof oilskin bag.
In November 1912, Herman Schuenemann and his crew set sail on their 44-year-old ship from Thompson’s Harbor, Michigan, carrying 5,500 spruces to Chicago. During the 300-mile journey, the ship ran into a massive winter storm with gale-force winds, waves and snow. When the ship was last seen on Nov. 23, 1912, by the Kewaunee Life Saving Station, its sails were tattered and it was riding low in the water. By the time the rescue boat arrived, the storm had claimed the ship and everyone on board. Remnants of Christmas trees washed ashore in Wisconsin for weeks after the storm. It would be days before Chicago residents would learn the fate of their beloved Christmas Ship.
Herman Scheunemann’s wallet was pulled up in a fishing net 10 years later and returned to his family. A diver found the Rouse Simmons shipwreck six miles off Point Beach, Wisconsin, in October 1971.
According to Ensign Dugan M. O’Donnell, the Mackinaw’s Christmas Ship project officer, the current tradition is supported by Chicago’s Christmas Ship organization, the Windy City’s largest all volunteer charitable program for inner city youth and their families at Christmas time.
“The Chicago’s Christmas Ship organization began in 1999 and this year will be celebrating its 20thanniversary,” said O’Donnell, a Colchester, Vermont native, who serves as a deck watch officer.
The Cheboygan, Michigan-based Mackinaw is the second Coast Guard cutter with the same name to carry on the Christmas Ship tradition, following the first Great Lakes icebreaker cutter Mackinaw (WAGB-83).
Commissioned in 1944 to keep Great Lakes shipping open for steel production in support of World War II, the original Mackinaw is now a lakeside museum in Mackinaw City, Michigan. The first Mackinaw was decommissioned on June 10, 2006, and her replacement, the current Mackinaw, was commissioned the same day. Since the Christmas Ship program began in 1999, crews from the two Mackinaws have delivered more than 25,000 Christmas trees to Chicago families.
Every year in early December, the Mackinaw crew commemorates the Christmas Ship during their seasonal buoy retrieval run by not only delivering trees to the Chicago Navy Pier but also laying a wreath at the shipwreck site.
Carrying the colors of the season, Mackinaw bears the red paint and white stripe of an intrepid U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker, purpose built to punch a path through the frozen lakes and facilitate commerce.
Mackinaw is a one-of-a-kind Coast Guard icebreaker with the Azipod podded propulsion system that allows precise maneuvering and critical power during icebreaking operations. With a Native American name that translates to “Island of the Great Turtle,” Mackinaw can cruise at up to 15 knots and can ram through 10-foot-thick ice.
The Coast Guard has been in the hard, cold and demanding business of domestic icebreaking since President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an Executive Order that directed it to facilitate the movement of commerce in response to the growing demand for oil, gas and steel.
Since then, the U.S. Coast Guard has been required to break ice on Great Lakes to keep the channels and harbors open to meet the reasonable demands of commerce.
In addition to breaking ice across the Great Lakes, Mackinaw maintains Aids to Navigation (ATON). Commercial and recreational mariners rely on Aids to Navigation to determine their position, steer clear of hazards and chart a safe course. Many of the Mackinaw’s buoys must be removed before ice sets in and replaced every spring after the lakes thaw. The multi-mission icebreaker can also conduct other Coast Guard missions, including law enforcement, environmental response and search and rescue operations.
A majority of the 240-foot-long cutter’s underway time is spent tending Aids to Navigation and breaking ice on Lake Huron, Lake Michigan, Lake Superior, Saint Mary’s River and the Straits of Mackinac, according to Lt. j.g. Carolyn A. Smith, Mackinaw’s assistant operations officer.
“From the onset of heavy ice until the waterways are fully cleared, typically four months, Mackinaw and her crew spend the majority of their days underway. During the spring and fall, the crew also works tirelessly to ensure that the waterways are properly marked with Aids to Navigation,” said Smith, a three-year Coast Guard veteran from Downers Grove, Illinois.
The U.S. Coast Guard maintains more than 48,000 ATON across 25,000 miles of coastal, intracoastal and inland waterways in the U.S. In 2018, U.S. waterways generated $5.4 trillion in economic activity. The U.S. Coast Guard recently charted the way ahead for its waterways missions in its first ever Maritime Commerce Strategic Outlook.
The Great Lakes are some of busiest waterways in the U.S. and the Mackinaw helps to keep them open for business.
Ensign Stephanie Miranda said Mackinaw also escorts vessels through the ice and helps to break them out when they get stuck.
“In the winter of 2019, Mackinaw provided over 1,000 hours of icebreaking support, including 120 vessel escorts and 46 direct assists (breaking out a vessel that has become beset in ice),” said Miranda, a deck watch officer from Sacramento, California. “This resulted in the safe movement of nearly 8.3 million tons of dry bulk cargo valued at $301 million.”
A seasoned Great Lakes sailor, Cmdr. John M. Stone serves as commanding officer of the one-of-a-kind Coast Guard icebreaker.
“I’ve had the privilege to serve aboard three Coast Guard cutters on the Great Lakes over the course of my career,” said Stone, a 22-year Coast Guard veteran from Ledyard, Connecticut. “One of the reasons I keep coming back to the Lakes is the strong maritime community that is steeped in tradition, humanitarian service and remembrance. I’m very proud to be a Great Lakes sailor, and I am truly blessed to sail with such an outstanding crew on this big red sleigh.”
Stone, who has commanded Mackinaw since June 2017, said the annual Christmas Ship port visit is a highlight for him and the crew.
“For a couple days each year, we step back from the rigors of the Fall Haul (seasonal buoy retrieval) and follow in the footsteps of Captain Schuenemann and act like Santa,” said Stone. “The Christmas tree is an enduring symbol of hope, love and good will that brings people together. It is truly our honor and privilege to continue Captain Schuenemann’s family legacy of faith, hope and good will to all.”