Capt. David Truitt, a Chicago resident, has been serving in the US Coast Guard for 60 years. All his life, he says, he worked on a rescue boat. The ship he captained.
On the Coast Guard vessel Cutter Mackinaw, Captain Truitt sat in a lounge below deck to share stories with the ship’s commanding officer, Jeannette Greene. The two seemed to be enjoying each other’s company as they sat next to a solid wooden table with a perfect engraving of a ship no longer in service.
“It didn’t even go through the locks,” said one of the officers. “She never left Lake Michigan.”
Two plates in the middle of the table were responsible for the delicious smell in the cabin. One with nearly a dozen chocolate eclairs, the other overflowing with pastries that are common in any Chicago family bakery.
When asked if he could talk about what the Great Lakes Christmas Ship had meant to him, he paused with emotion.
“We were very successful in what we were doing,” he said. “We would go around and do useful things.”
For six decades, the captain served in Chicago’s only Coast Guard.
“We would go out and do rescues every summer,” he recalls. “And when we were out, here’s this couple in a storm on the water!”
“We take them out of the water and they say ‘what about the boat?’ And I say ‘okay’”, laughs the captain. “We tied it to the boat and towed it away!”
This story happens again and again with boaters on Lake Michigan, and it was an important part of Truitt’s daily responsibilities.
However, it was during a Christmas season more than two decades ago that Truitt realized something.
While doing good deeds for Chicago residents, Truitt and her fellow “Coasties” noticed that some houses were having Christmas parties. Those houses had Christmas trees. However, in the poorest neighborhoods there were no parties or Christmas trees.
“That seems obvious to some people,” Truitt explained. “But it wasn’t obvious to us. We said, “being us, we can fix that because we can fix anything.”
That’s when the Great Lake Christmas Ship was born.
Well, maybe, RE-born.
During the first 20the century, a ship known as the Rouse Simmons was the original Christmas Tree Ship. She carried pine trees across Lake Michigan to Chicago from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. Tragedy struck in November 1912, when the ship encountered severe weather. The ship sank in Lake Michigan killing her captain and all crew members on board.
It was then, 23 years ago, that the Christmas Boat Committee worked with Captain Truitt and the US Coast Guard to revive the tradition. Since then, more than 25,000 Christmas trees have lined Lake Michigan from Cheboygan, Michigan, to Chicago.
Aboard the Coast Guard ship Mackinaw, George Degener, spokesman for the Ninth Coast Guard District, welcomed NBC 5 to view the 1,200 fresh Christmas trees brought in from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Just walking to the ship, the scent of fresh pines brought the deep forests of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to the lakeside of Chicago. They are donated from a tree farm and taken to Cheboygan, where they are loaded onto the ship and secured for a multi-day journey south on Lake Michigan.
“This ship is the only type in the Coast Guard fleet that does what it does,” Degener explained. “The Great Lakes icebreaker that keeps commerce moving, keeps people safe and brings holiday cheer to the city of Chicago.”
The massive ship not only traversed the frozen Great Lakes during the frigid winter months, but also did some incredibly important work before docking at Navy Pier.
“The Mackinaw Coast Guard Patrol Vessel is primarily an icebreaker, but also a buoy auxiliary,” Degener says.
Therefore, at this time of year, the lakes begin to freeze over as the bad weather progresses.
The Mackinaw’s 55-member crew moved from buoy to buoy to carry the aids to navigation that guide and keep sailors safely out of the water. The crew then replaces them with winter markers that are more resistant to ice and cold. It’s a big job for a big ship since these buoys and their anchors weigh tens of thousands of pounds each.
But Degener says several members of the US Coast Guard are looking forward to being on this mission, so they can share in the joyous moments once they arrive in Chicago.
“This was my first boat in 2005.” Said Jeanette Greene. “I was a young man from the coast trying to find my job.”
Now, as the commanding officer of the Mackinaw, she joins a group of coastal women who make up 50% of the ship’s officer corps.
“Coming back here now as a commanding officer is extremely special to me,” he said. “Being here in Chicago [with you guys] to make this event really amazing…it’s an honor!”
The crew will unload the trees Saturday morning during a ceremony at Navy Pier. The trees will be placed on trucks that will take them to residents throughout the city.
“What really bothers me is that I see a kid this big,” Captain Truitt said as he used his hand to show the height of a small child. He then widened his reach and continued, “with a tree THAT BIG. And he is holding the tree. And he is so happy. And then behind him is a mother with a big smile and a father with a big smile. And they hug each other. And I realized that this is a good thing to do.”
Meet the crew of the Great Lakes Christmas ship, the Coast Guard Mackinaw, in this video from the USCGC.
The program for Saturday, December 3, 2022 can be found here on the Christmas Ship website.