Tradition of the “Christmas ship” lives on, 100 years after sinking

Nov 23, 2012

The U.S. Coast Guard has loaded 1,300 Christmas trees aboard the ice cutter Mackinaw for delivery to needy families in Chicago.

Captain Dave Truitt of the Christmas Ship committee in Chicago says selling cheap evergreen trees from the northern Michigan woods to families in Chicago was a tradition a century ago.

“People would come down and get telegraphs of what ships were coming. They would look to the horizon and one of them would have a Christmas tree tied to the top. And people would yell and scream and the church bell it would start ringing and it was the beginning of Christmas for the entire community,” Truitt said.

Captain Herman Schuenemann’s ship, the Rouse Simmons, became known as the Christmas tree ship.

“One of the reasons (Captain Schuenemann) was so popular besides being a very good guy, he was a good businessman. He had an amazingly simple sign on his large schooner,” Truitt said, “It said ‘Christmas trees cheap’.”

75-cents was cheap. On land trees sold for a dollar a piece.

This year’s trip marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the original Christmas tree ship. It was last seen above water November 23rd, 1912 before a big snow storm. There are still many evergreens in the ship’s hull at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Check out the wreckage footage below (narration begins around a minute into the video).

Now the tradition has been revamped. But the trees are donated by the maritime community to families in need (who are nominated by their communities) instead.

The trees arrive at Navy Pier in Chicago November 30th.