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Last week, the U.S. Coast Guard delivered 1,200 Christmas trees to Chicago, marking the 20th year its “Christmas Ship” has brought holiday cheer to local families in need.

The 240-foot icebreaker Mackinaw (WLBB-30) arrived at Navy Pier on Friday following a five-day voyage on Lake Michigan. Led by Commander John Stone, the ship docked to carols sung by the Taft High School choir. Students were then given a tour of the ship and learned about the origin of the trees, which are sourced from various Northern Michigan farms.

The ship was briefly open to the public on Friday and Saturday, before area high school students helped offload the trees for distribution across the city. Together, independent community organizations and social service agencies select recipient families who would not otherwise be able to afford a Christmas tree.

The Christmas Ship dates back to the late 1800s, when brothers August and Herman Schuenemann used a three-masted wooden schooner to deliver trees to large crowds on the Chicago waterfront. Herman even became known as “Captain Christmas” before he, his brother, and his crew were lost in a 1912 storm near Two Rivers, Wisconsin. Their ship wasn’t found until 1971. Schuenemann and his Christmas Ship would recede into history until 1999, when Chicago attorney Dave Truitt started the tradition again with the help of the Coast Guard.

The Mackinaw is actually the second Coast Guard cutter with the same name to carry on the Christmas Ship tradition, after the first (WAGB-83) was decommissioned on June 10, 2006. The ship’s usual duties involve keeping shipping lanes clear of ice and helping boats that veer off course, a task that which usually lasts through April.

According to Chief Ingrid Valentine, a 20-year Coast Guard veteran, seven members of the 60-person crew are on-duty at all times. But for the rest, Chicago is the stop they most look forward to. Most crew members assigned to the Mackinaw stay for two- or three-year stints, so getting a little free time in a large city like Chicago is coveted.

“It’s a welcome break. The crew couldn’t wait to get off yesterday. We love the city,” Valentine said.

Since the Christmas Ship program began, the two Mackinaws have delivered more than 25,000 Christmas trees to Chicago families. During its voyage across Lake Michigan, the Mackinaw crew also commemorates the original Christmas Ship by laying a wreath at the shipwreck site near Two Rivers.

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