Reporting Mike Krauser
CHICAGO (CBS) – Hundreds of volunteers unloaded 1,600 Christmas trees from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw at Navy Pier on Saturday. The trees will go to families who can’t afford one.
WBBM’s Mike Krauser reports, for 13 years the Coast guard has re-enacted the journey made by Capt. Herman Schuenemann 100 years ago this year.
His schooner, the Rouse Simmons, sank off Wisconsin on Nov. 23, 1912, as it was crossing Lake Michigan to pick up Christmas trees from northern Michigan. Schuenemann and his crew were lost in the wreck.
Schuenemann and his family were members of St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park, which still honors his generosity every year.
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Former Coast Guard Capt. Dave Truitt chairs Chicago’s Christmas Tree Ship Committee, which oversees the Christmas tree ships these days.
“When he came here, he was such a wonderful guy, and right over there was St. Paul’s Church, and he would get his biggest tree, and he would put it on his shoulders, and get the kids, and like Pied Piper, he would go up to St. Paul’s,” Truitt said. “He would yell and scream, and then he would come back and sell trees for a while. But when he got done and sold most of them, he would invite the poor kids to come in and either make wreaths or take the small trees. So it’s a longtime Chicago tradition.”
Truitt said the trees on today’s Christmas tree ships still come from northern Michigan.
“Capt. Schuenemann started this over 100 years ago, and this year we’re celebrating his career, and his bringing trees right here to this place, up until 100 years ago when the Rouse Simmons sank,” he said.
Schuenemann’s grandson, Dr. Bill Ehling, said the wreck of the Rouse Simmons was found in 1971.
“It was really well preserved. There were a lot of trees still lashed to the deck. Of course, they lost the needles,” he said.
Ehling said it’s an honor his grandfather’s memory is being kept alive.
Schuenemann’s great-granddaughter Barb Ehling said, “it’s a real inspiration to know that this is still being kept alive. … It’s very emotional just to see all the trees, and that they’re going to families that actually need them and wouldn’t have had a tree if it wasn’t for my great-grandfather.”
These days, the trees are unloaded from the Mackinaw by local youth volunteers, and loaded onto trucks to be distributed to needy families throughout Chicago.