Crew members on the Great Lakes icebreaker Mackinaw unload some of the 1,300 Christmas trees Dec. 1 for distribution to families in Chicago. (CPO Alan Haraf / Coast Guard)
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Chicago recently got an early does of Christmas magic, but it came by sea instead of sleigh. The Great Lakes icebreaker Mackinaw delivered holiday cheer and 1,300 Christmas trees Dec. 1 to struggling families in Chicago. This is the 13th year in a row the Coast Guard has delivered trees to Chicago, and Mackinaw has participated for 12 of them.
"I think it's great because I get to play Captain Santa for the week," said Cmdr. Michael Davanzo, the vessel's commanding officer. "I was skeptical about loading the trees, but when I saw the crew come together with such teamwork and enthusiasm, I was inspired."
The tradition of bringing trees to the Chicago waterfront dates back to the late 19th century, when Herman Schuenemann, a merchant sailor nicknamed "Captain Santa," would deliver more than 5,000 trees on the Rouse Simmons, a commercial three-masted schooner, according to http://ChristmasShip.org">ChristmasShip.org.
After most of the trees had been sold, Schuenemann would reserve several hundred and give them away to families who couldn't afford them, said Dave Truitt, a former Coast Guard Auxiliary member and founder of the Christmas Tree Ship committee, a volunteer group of mariners who coordinate and pay for the delivery of the trees.
When returning from its annual northern voyage in 1912, the Rouse Simmons sunk Nov. 23 with Schuenemann and 16 crew members onboard. There were no survivors.
This year, Mackinaw's crew laid a wreath at the site of the sinking to commemorate the 100th anniversary, Davanzo said.
Though the tradition of the Christmas tree ship doesn't have Coast Guard roots, Truitt said there was no hesitation on the part of the Coast Guard to take part.
Mackinaw, based in Cheboygan, Mich., makes a fall trip every year across the Great Lakes to remove lighted buoys before the lakes freeze, Davanzo said.
"We annually go down to the Chicago area for both training and navigation work, so it seemed to tie in," he said. "It's a good opportunity to interact with the people of the Chicago waterfront."
For Boatswain's Mate 2nd Class Zachary Emery, who has served on Mackinaw for three years, the best part of the trip is spending time with local sea cadets and young Marines who help the Coasties unload the trees each year.
"There's high morale, and a smile on the kids' faces when they're handling the trees," he said.
Most of the trees this year came from Dutchman Tree Farm in Michigan, but 100 of them were hand-cut from the same area where Schuenemann used to get trees in the woods surrounding Thompson, Mich.
The 1,300 trees were delivered to 1,300 families. These families averaged about four people each, meaning they will brighten the holidays of more than 5,000 people this year, Truitt said.
Families are chosen to receive the trees by their neighbors and neighborhood community organizations.
"We are not a giveaway organization. It's not our task to give something that improves a moment," Truitt said. "It is our task to turn people's lives around and to give them hope."