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Christmas Tree Ship Arrives at Navy Pier

The 54 member ship will deliver trees for over 1,500 families in Chicago. Photo by: Alexis Castanos
The 54-member ship will deliver trees for over 1,500 families in Chicago. Photo by: Alexis Castanos

Adults bundled in thick winter jackets and knit hats huddled under red-leaved trees, looking out at Lake Michigan at the ship.

As it neared the dock, the smell of pine needles and hot coffee wafted through the crowd of Coast Guards and families, who had gathered at 8:30 a.m. on Navy Pier. 

For the 101st year, the Christmas Tree Ship arrived in Chicago Friday. This year it was carrying 1,214 trees for more than 1,500 low-income Chicago families.

“The families are chosen by their own community organizations,” said Capt. Dave Truitt, founding member of Chicago’s Christmas Ship Committee. It’s “usually people down on their luck or in poverty… all kind-hearted deserving people.”

Three main Chicago organizations: By the Hand, Benton House, and Ada S. McKinley Community Services will distribute the trees.

The trees will be unloaded from the Coast Guard Mackinaw Cutter ship by local youth volunteers, including Sea Cadets, Venture Crews, Sea Scouts and Young Marines and loaded onto trucks for distribution. And the trees will be presented to families after 8:30 a.m. Saturday following a brief public ceremony.

“The street will be lined up with trucks from all the agencies,” said Ted Rock, former president of Council Navy League. “They will put 50, 60, 70 Christmas trees in the truck… Tomorrow, people will be standing out there waiting for their Christmas tree.”

The tradition began in the late 1800s with Capt. Herman Schuenamann of the schooner Rousse Simmons, said Rock. Schuenamann made the trip through Lake Michigan, and brought Christmas trees to sell but he would always give away 10 percent.

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The Rousse Simmons sunk on its way to Chicago in 1912 with 15 crew members and a load of 5,000 trees, said Ruth Gibson, author of a children’s novel on the Christmas Tree Ship. Schuenamann’s tradition stopped after that until 2000, when Truitt resurrected the ceremony.

“I heard a little boy… ask his mother,… ‘why don’t we have a tree?’,” Truitt said. “She said, ‘Oh hush that’s for white people.’ I was so upset by that I came down to the maritime community and said, ‘we can fix this.’”

It’s the 13thyear for Truitt, and the event has expanded. This year, the committee hosted education programs for Saint Cornelius Catholic School and Epiphany Catholic School. The kids heard the “Christmas Tree Ship” story by author Ruth Gibson, had an ecology presentation by Sea Partners and got a tour of the ship.

“This is the greatest thing in the world,” Truitt said. “This involves about 15,000 people including the families of the Coast Guard. It’s a life-changer, and is truly what this time of year is all about, it’s Chicago.”

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