Coast Guard's annual Christmas Tree Ship honors sunken schooner

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw is delivering 1,200 Christmas trees from northern Michigan down Lake Michigan to Chicago in an annual expedition honoring the ill-fated Christmas Tree Ship that sank in late November 1912.

For the 21st year, the Mackinaw's 60-member crew took a brief break from its annual aid-to-navigation work earlier this week to load the trees that will be used for family holiday celebrations in the Chicago area.

"It gives us a chance to interact with the public in a different way," said Lt. j.g. Patrick Buell, public affairs officer aboard the Mackinaw. "It's a way to give back and help spread some holiday cheer to some very deserving families in need."

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw is delivering 1,200 Christmas trees from northern Michigan down Lake Michigan to Chicago in an annual expedition honoring the ill-fated Christmas Tree Ship that sank in late November 1912.

The voyage honors the Rouse Simmons, a three-masted schooner, that sunk in a violent storm off the coast of Two Rivers, Wisconsin, killing the 16 people on board. Herman Schuenemann, nicknamed "Captain Santa," sold Christmas trees from the boat in Chicago and often gave away some to needy families.

►Video: Watch the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw being loaded with Christmas trees

After Thanksgiving, the Mackinaw departed its homeport in Cheboygan with the trees from Dutchman Tree Farms in Manton. It will perform its duties under Operation Fall Retrieve of pulling up summer buoys in the water and replacing some with smaller markers that are less likely to be damaged when the lake freezes in the winter.

On Sunday, the crew will drop a wreath into the water at the spot where the Rouse Simmons foundered.

The Mackinaw is set to arrive Dec. 5 in Chicago. Typically, its arrival is met with much fanfare and public tours of the ship. Because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, however, the ceremony will be much smaller, and only auxiliary Coast Guard members will assist in the unloading. The crew members will use chutes to send the trees down to keep the clusters separated, as well.

"We're trying to stay safe," Buell said. "We think it's important to continue this tradition, maybe more than ever before. If you can just imagine how these folks rely on the Christmas Tree Ship to celebrate Christmas, think about how even more stressed and taxed they have most likely been due to the coronavirus. We've found a way as safe as we can for the less fortunate members of the Chicago public to celebrate."

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble