Chicago, IL

On Way to Chicago Christmas Tree Ship Stops, Returns Anchor Mistakenly Recovered from Ship Wreck

Natalie Frank, Ph.D.

Anchor belonged to Schooner Kate Kelly which storm sank in 1895

In a tribute, the renowned "Christmas Tree Ship" altered its course on its annual journey to Chicago, not merely laden with festive evergreens, but carrying with it the weight of history. The vessel, U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw, embarked across Lake Michigan, where it traditionally donates Christmas trees to needy families in Chicago. However, this year's voyage held a distinct purpose beyond the yuletide cheer.

During the journey, the crew made a deliberate pause to ceremoniously return an anchor unintentionally recovered from the depths of Lake Michigan. This anchor's origin traces back to the tragic shipwreck of the schooner Kate Kelly in 1895, a vessel that met its demise in the tempestuous waters of the lake.

The Kate Kelly, constructed in 1867 in Tonawanda, New York, was a robust two-mast, square stern schooner designed for the transportation of bulk cargos, including grain, coal, iron ore, and wood products. Despite facing grounding incidents and two prior sinkings, the Kate Kelly embarked on its fateful final journey in 1895, intending to sail from Alpena to Chicago with a crew of six.

On the ill-fated Monday morning of May 13, 1895, a ferocious spring storm ravaged Lake Michigan, ensnaring the Kate Kelly in its relentless grasp and causing its sinking. While the precise cause of the vessel's loss remains unknown, eyewitness accounts from local farmers reported the harrowing sight of a schooner capsizing in the vicinity where the Kate Kelly later met its tragic fate.

The aftermath of the storm revealed the extent of the disaster, with several vessels sinking and others sustaining severe damage. The Kate Kelly's wreckage was confirmed on Tuesday, May 14, 1895, when a Kenosha-based tug brought in fragments that unmistakably belonged to the ill-fated schooner.

Diver John Harms further explored the wreck on June 9, 1895, reporting the intact jib boom and bowsprit, a missing foremast, an anchor cast overboard, and a mizzenmast entangled in rigging. Despite the absence of bodies, a poignant detail emerged — a large section of a flag found at half-mast in the forward rigging, a potential futile distress signal.

The recent return of the Kate Kelly's anchor by the Christmas Tree Ship not only commemorates a bygone era but also honors the lives lost in the turbulent waters of Lake Michigan, weaving a poignant narrative into the fabric of this annual tradition.

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