Ringing in the Holidays with a Blue Beacon Celebration of the Christmas Tree Ship

Credit: U.S. Coast Guard photo by Master Chief Petty Officer Alan Haraf

At a time when many traditional holiday plans have been cancelled, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation provided some needed holiday spirit last Saturday by hosting a virtual event highlighting the tale of the Rouse Simmons – also known as the Christmas Tree Ship.

Captained by Herman Scheunemann, the Christmas Tree Ship traveled north on Lake Michigan every year to collect pine trees from Michigan and delivered them to Chicago residents. Scheunemann always donated a portion of his trees to families who were unable to purchase them, earning him the moniker “Captain Santa.” This tradition of giving continues today: each year, the U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Mackinaw delivers over a thousand Christmas trees to Chicago’s Navy Pier, where volunteer organizations, youth groups, and educators unload and deliver them to families across the city.

The Foundation celebrated this history with help from partners at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum (WMM) and the Chicago’s Christmas Tree Ship Committee. Cathy Green, Executive Director of the WMM, offered a live presentation and Q&A on the Christmas Tree Ship that highlighted its significance to the Chicago community. Her talk was introduced by George Kisiel, Chairman of the Chicago’s Christmas Ship Committee, and complemented by baker Kimberly Loy, who offered a lesson on how to bake and decorate homemade Christmas Tree Ship-themed gingerbread cookies. Official Christmas Tree Ship Balladeer Lee Murdock saw the audience out with a song. Hundreds of  people tuned in to take advantage of this unique historical and culinary event.

It was the second virtual event in 2020 of the Foundation’s Blue Beacon Series – a set of panel discussions, lectures, roundtables and film screenings which bring to light the pressing issues facing our ocean and Great Lakes. Apart from generating some needed Christmas cheer, the event also sought to build support for the proposed Wisconsin Shipwreck Coast National Marine Sanctuary. This protected area would help preserve 36 historically, archaeologically, and recreationally significant shipwrecks  – including the Rouse Simmons – for future generations. An additional 60 wrecks that have yet to be discovered are also thought to lie within the sanctuary’s proposed bounds.

With many of its wrecks still in remarkably pristine condition, this collection of sunken ships provides a unique window on the history of the Great Lakes. We invite you to sign our petition to ensure these sites are protected.