Over the weekend, the Coast Guard cutter Mackinaw arrived in Chicago carrying 1,200 Christmas trees, which local organizations will distribute to deserving families.
The annual tradition, known locally as the Christmas Ship event, dates back to the early days of the 20th century.
The original "Christmas Tree Ship," the Rouse Simmons, was one of several dozen vessels that were in the business of carrying trees to Chicago around the last turn of the century. Her operator, Herman Schuenemann, sold directly to the public along Chicago's wharves, and he was well known for donating trees to needy families in need. Sadly the Rouse went down in a storm in November of 1912, loaded with thousands of Christmas trees, and took Captain Schuenemann and the crew with her.
The commercial use of sailing vessels for Chicago’s Christmas tree trade ended a few years later, but the Coast Guard picked up Schuenemann's tradition of ferrying trees to needy families, and has continued it to this day.
The event also coincides with the Coast Guard's winter ATON recovery program on the Great Lakes, Operation Fall Retrieve.
Every year, the Coast Guard works with other agencies to take 1,200 aids to navigation out of service before the arrival of winter ice – nearly half of the total floating ATON in the region. The aids are replaced by smaller buoys called winter marks, or ice hulls, which stay underneath the ice after the freeze but retain the buoys' locations and mooring lines. If left in place, the buoys could be damaged – even punctured and sunk – by the heavy ice sheets.
ATON recovery is not easy work. “The job can be quite exhausting when you are hauling out buoys for eight to ten hours a day during the spring and fall buoy runs,” said buoy tender crewmember Seaman Francis Armstrong, in a 2010 interview.
All images courtesy USCG