Skip to primary navigation Skip to content Skip to footer
Back to Tour Chicago Blog

Christmas Tree Ship

Coast Guard crew carrying Christmas Tree Ship load is crossing Lake Michigan

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw

Members of the Cheboygan community and a local high school helped the Mackinaw crew load trees for its annual Christmas Tree Ship run to Chicago. Photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw is motoring down Lake Michigan today and nearing Chicago, where its load of more than 1,200 Christmas trees will be used to recreate the holiday spirit of Michigan’s ill-fated Christmas Tree Ship, which sank in late November 1912.

The rugged, 240-foot icebreaker left Cheboygan, Michigan on Saturday after volunteers from the nearby Wolverine High School and the community helped the Mackinaw’s crew load the hundreds of net-wrapped trees onto the cutter’s fantail. For the commemorative trip, the Mackinaw is also flying a custom-made tree pennant, the Coast Guard said.

The journey has been a sentimental favorite for the cutter’s crew and groups in Northern Michigan and Chicago for years.

U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw

The U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, loaded with 1,200 Christmas Trees, traveled under the Mackinac Bridge on its way to Chicago. Photo provided by the U.S. Coast Guard.


“The Mackinaw does this to honor the Rouse Simmons, a three-masted schooner which tragically sank in 1912 while sailing to Chicago to deliver Christmas trees. We are honored to carry on this Christmas tradition and spread holiday cheer!” the crew said in a recent social media post.

Click here to see a Coast Guard video of the crew and their helpers loading the Mackinaw.

Earlier this weekend, spectators gathered in Northern Michigan as the ship left its pier, bound for Chicago. “1,200 Christmas trees secured to the fantail, a custom tree wind pennant compliments of the CO (well done, Captain!), and Santa and his elf dancing on the flybridge…. Its official- U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw WLBB 30 is underway for their annual Christmas tree run!,” the U.S. Coast Guard Great Lakes group said Saturday in a social media post. “The crew is in high spirits as spectators waved and cheered the ship off the pier. Stay tuned to see what Mackinaw and her crew are up to as they transit to #Chicago to complete this unique mission!”

The holiday trees are funded by donations to Chicago’s Christmas Ship committee. They’ll be delivered to that city’s Navy Pier, where the trees will be distributed to Chicagoans for their holiday celebrations. The Mackinaw crew is also getting some of its late fall work done during the journey, with some buoy-tending along the way.

"Captain Santa"

“Captain Santa” and two crewmen on the deck of the Rouse Simmons

As it has for decades, the Coast Guard is recreating the Christmastime journey of the Rouse Simmons, which sank on Nov. 23, 1912 in a fierce gale off the coast of Two Rivers, Wisconsin.

Built in 1868 in Wisconsin, the Rouse Simmons was one of many Great Lakes maritime workhorses, ferrying lumber and other cargo from port to port.

By 1910, Capt. Herman Schuenemann owned a small interest in her. For years, his family had been among the two dozen schooner crews doing late-season Christmas tree runs, bringing evergreens from northern Michigan and Wisconsin to Chicago’s docks. The ships would be decorated with lights, and the families could come aboard and pick out an inexpensive tree. By cutting out the retail middleman, captains could get a decent profit from a holiday run.

Known for his generosity,  Schuenemann earned the nickname “Captain  Santa.” On its last run in 1912, the Rouse Simmons was crammed with more than 5,000 trees, enough to make some say the ship looked like a floating forest when it set off from Thompson, Michigan, near the Upper Peninsula’s Manistique, on Friday, Nov. 22, 1912. By the next afternoon, the ship was gone.

The entire crew was lost, believed to be around 14 men. There were also accounts that lumberjacks working in Northern Michigan had hitched a ride, trying to get home to Chicago for Christmas. That would push the death toll to possibly 23.

The Christmas tree cargo has become a tradition for the Coast Guard. In the last 20 years, the cutter Mackinaw and its predecessor of the same name have delivered more than 25,000 Christmas trees to Chicago families.

Rouse Simmons shipwreck

Bow of the Rouse Simmons with a Christmas tree placed on her deck