Chicago Christmas Tree Ship

Americana, Festivals, On the Road, Seasonal, Traditions
on November 18, 2010
David Mudd Baled evergreens cover the deck after the ship arrives from Cheboygan, Mich.

With a Christmas tree hanging from its mast and a red-bowed wreath fastened beneath its bridge, the icebreaker Mackinaw powers through the frigid waters of Lake Michigan bound for Chicago's Navy Pier. Lashed to the decks of the U.S. Coast Guard ship are 1,500 Christmas trees that will be distributed to disadvantaged families in the Windy City.

Each December, the 240-foot Mackinaw and its 60-person crew carries on the time-honored tradition that rouses holiday spirit and creates lasting memories for tree growers, volunteers and recipients.

"This will be our first Christmas tree," says Nana Afari, 34, after receiving a free tree last year with her husband, Eric, 36, and their son, Kweku, 3. "We're very excited about it," adds Afari, who immigrated to the United States from Ghana eight years ago.

"We're going to put a star on the tree," Kweku chimes in.

The Christmas Tree Ship, as the evergreen-laden Mackinaw is dubbed, continues the legacy of the Rouse Simmons, a three-masted schooner that transported Christmas trees to Chicago a century ago from Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The ship's captain, Herman Schuenemann, sold trees from his vessel and gave some to Chicagoans who couldn't afford their 50-cent price.

"The crew and I feel fortunate to share in such a wonderful endeavor," says Mackinaw Cmdr. Scott Smith, 42, standing aboard his ship. "We're proud to stand in for the Rouse Simmons."

Chicago's Christmas Ship
The Rouse Simmons set sail Nov. 22, 1912, with 5,000 Christmas trees aboard, and sank in a powerful storm on Lake Michigan and never reached Chicago. Among those wanting one of Schuenemann's free trees were Swedish immigrants Ruthie Erickson, 4, and her father, John. While others gave up waiting for the ship, Ruthie refused to leave the dock, saying, "It just won't be Christmas without a Christmas tree."

In 1990, while reading historical accounts about the Rouse Simmons, Chet Childs, 65, of Forest Park, Ill., was inspired by Schuenemann's generosity. The scuba diver and scientific photographer wrote a play—The Chicago Christmas Ship—recounting the story of the ship's last voyage and how Schuenemann's family continued his tree-giving tradition.

When Ruth Gibson, Ruthie's daughter, discovered the play was being presented to raise money for the Chicago Maritime Society Museum, she and her mother attended a performance.

"Every Christmas my mother told the story of her waiting for the Christmas tree ship that sank," recalls Gibson, 73. "It was part of our family lore on Christmas Eve. I just had to take my mother. It was a full-circle experience for us."

At the play's end, Dave Truitt, who played Capt. Schuenemann, told the audience the drama was based on actual events. "I was interrupted by the producer who gave me a note that said, 'Little Ruthie is here tonight,'" Pruitt recalls.

The wheelchair-bound woman, then 82, was wheeled to the front. "She was so moved to see her story on stage," says Truitt, who gave her the Christmas tree used in the play—78 years after her dockside vigil.

Reclaiming a tradition
The legacy of the Rouse Simmons was resurrected a decade ago as Coast Guard administrators and members of Chicago's marine community were searching for ways to help Chicago's less fortunate during the Christmas season. They formed the Chicago Christmas Ship Committee and began raising money to purchase trees for families who couldn't afford them.

"We knew a large number of kids couldn't afford Christmas trees; we didn't want that to happen in Chicago," says Truitt, the committee's program director.

Since 2000, the all-volunteer organization has given away more than 10,500 trees to poor individuals and families. "It gives me great satisfaction to know these trees are going to families who wouldn't otherwise get one," says Lloyd Karzen, 71, a yachting enthusiast who has served on the Chicago Christmas Ship Committee since its inception.

The committee organizes thousands of volunteers each year and raises thousands of dollars to purchase Christmas trees. Growers in Michigan and Wisconsin provide 6-foot fir trees at reduced prices and deliver them to Cheboygan, Mich. (pop. 5,295), where the Mackinaw is stationed.

"Contributing to someone else's happiness is what the season's all about," says Chris Maciborski, 36, owner of Dutchman Tree Farms in Manton, Mich.

Voyage and volunteers
Scouts, high school students and crew members load the Mackinaw prior to Thanksgiving before the Coast Guard cutter departs on its 600-mile seasonal journey to replace buoys on Lake Michigan with winter markers.

After the Mackinaw docks in Chicago on the first Friday in December, yachting club volunteers string 8,000 lights on its railings, some years chipping off ice before they can decorate the ship. Hundreds of school children tour the ship, listen to ecology lessons from Coast Guard Auxiliary, and hear Ruth Gibson retell her mother's Christmastime story.

The following day, the trees are unloaded. Laughing, joking and singing holiday songs, 250 Scouts from across the Midwest unload trees from the Mackinaw's deck. Trucks transport the evergreen cargo to 16 charities and churches throughout Chicago for distribution, and the Mackinaw departs to resume its winter mission.

"This is a fantastic display of human togetherness," says Boy Scout Nick Bernstein, 17, a third-year volunteer. "It's truly heartwarming."