Nothing says Christmas like a Christmas tree. Real or fake, there’s something about having bright lights on the tree branches that brings joy to a room. But for some, there’s just not enough money to enjoy something that people generally take for granted. Fortunately charities like Chicago’s Christmas Ship help bring trees to the city’s neediest families.
The Christmas Ship Committee is an all-volunteer nonprofit made up of members of Chicago’s marine community, including the Chicago Marine Heritage Society, Chicago chapter of the Navy League of the U.S., International Shipmasters Association and U.S. Coast Guard. The organization exists to provide fresh Christmas trees to low-income families in the Chicago area that otherwise wouldn’t enjoy the Christmas tradition.
Christmas trees arriving on Chicago docks is a tradition extending back for more than a century. In fact, it’s such a part of Chicago’s Christmas history that a local theater puts on a play, The Christmas Schooner, to share the tale.
It all goes back to a Chicago family, the Schuenemanns, from the late 1890s who had a commercial business bringing Christmas trees to the docks of Chicago. Captain Schuenemann, also known as “Captain Santa,” was famous for donating some of the trees to needy families. People would flock to the docks to receive these special, fresh-cut trees to decorate theirs homes.
However, by the 1910s, the tradition of bringing Christmas trees by ship began losing steam as wholesale Christmas tree retailers started using railways — a much cheaper option than employing flat-bottom boats to navigate the Great Lakes.
And tragically, in 1912, the Rouse Simmons, the family’s last ship, sank with Captain Schuenemann aboard, ending the family business. To this day, the great ship sits at the bottom of Lake Michigan with hundreds of trees tied in its watery resting place.
Captain Santa’s tradition of bringing Christmas trees to Chicago continued in 2000 when the Coast Guard began transporting them for underprivileged families. Every year the Mackinaw transports over 1,000 trees from Northern Michigan or Wisconsin to be distributed throughout the city, much to the delight of the children whose homes they brighten.