Recalling the Great Lakes' Doomed Christmas Tree Ship

By Dave Rosenthal

The Christmas spirit is popping up along the waters of the Great Lakes region.

In Port Huron, Mich., Santa Claus rode to shore on the Huron Spirit, a boat operated by the Lakes Pilots Association. In Toledo, Ohio, the tug Josephine brought him to the National Museum of the Great Lakes.

But the most poignant event of the holiday season was in Chicago, where the sinking of  "The Christmas Tree Ship" was remembered recently.

Unloading the Mackinaw [US Coast Guard

The Rouse Simmons, a three-masted schooner, sank in a storm in 1912, as it headed from northern Michigan with thousands of trees. Such trips were common, as ships brought evergreens to the city and sold them on the docks, according to the National Archives' Prologue magazine.

Video: Surveying a Lake Erie shipwreck

The Rouse Simmons' captain, Herman E.  Schuenemann, was more well-known than most for the pre-holiday trips, and he became known as "Captain Santa," the Prologue article says. Although most of the trees were sold, he also gave some to needy residents. 

The tradition was revived in 2000, the Coast Guard says, when it partnered with Chicago's maritime community. This year, the cutter Mackinaw arrived at the Navy Pier with 1,200 trees to be distributed to  families.

Crowd gathers near the Mackinaw [US Coast Guard]

The two-day event also included tossing of a wreath into Lake Michigan in memory of those lost at sea. Like "Captain Santa" and his crew.

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