CSX Transportation Historical Society



Rail Fan Adventure --

Charles H. Bogart

One of the reasons Mary Ann and I took our grandaughter Grayson to Wisconsin was for her to ride on SS Badger, the last coal burning steam powered boat operating on the Great Lakes. All ships on the Great Lakes are called boats. Badger may be shut down in 2015 by EPA due to her burning COAL.

Badger and her sister Spartan were constructed as railcar ferry for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in 1953 by the Christy Corporation. Both boats have a reinforced hull for ice-breaking and were designed to carry railroad cars, passengers, and automobiles across Lake Michigan year round. Today only Badger sails, transporting from May to October automobiles and passengers from East US 10 at Ludington, Michigan, to West US 10 at Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Starting in 1972, rail service across Lake Michigan began to decline and on 1 July 1983, Chessie System ended its Great Lakes freight car ferry service and sold Badger and Spartan to Glen F. Bowden of Ludington. He organized the Michigan-Wisconsin Transportation Company (MWT) to continue car ferry operation. However, rail freight car traffic continued to decline and by November 1988, Badger was the only boat operating. On 16 November 1990, facing bankruptcy, Bowden laid up Badger, ending 93 years of railway car ferry service out of Ludington and 98 years of such service on Lake Michigan.

After sitting idle for a year, Badger and Spartan were purchased by Charles F. Conrad who reconfigured Badger to carry only passengers and automobiles. Spartan was tied up to the dock at Ludington, Michigan, and is used as a source for spare parts to keep Badger operating. Badger is the last large coal burning steamship on the Great Lakes powered by Skinner Uniflow engines.

Daily, May through October, Badger completes a round trip from Ludington across Lake Michigan to Manitowoc and back. The trip one way takes about four hours and covers 60 miles, while the same trip by road via Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; and Gary, Indiana, takes eight hours. A clarification is needed in that while the voyage takes four hours when west bound, it takes three hours by the clock, and five hours when eastbound due to Badger moving to or from the Eastern Time Zone to the Central Time Zone.

In 2002, Badger was cited by EPA because of its daily practice of dumping untreated coal ash from its boilers directly into the waters of Lake Michigan. Burning 55 tons of coal a day, Badger produces 4 tons of ash. EPA, as a result of this ash dumping into Lake Michigan, moved to shut Badger down. However, Badger won a temporary exception, as an historical ship, that allows her to continue to burn coal and dump its ashes into Lake Michigan until April 2015.

We took the 2:00 P.M. ferry from Manitowoc for arrival at 7:00 P.M. at Ludington. One must be at the ferry one hour before sailing to guarantee your car being put on board. The car is driven on board by members of Badger’s staff. Cost of our car was $70.50, Senior fare $62.00 per person, and Child’s fare $24.00. We were one of the first on board Badger, and I noted that the railroad track is still visible on her car carrying deck. Once on board, we headed to the upper deck to find a good viewing position. Grayson found us three chairs on the port side. Here we stayed for the first hour, enjoying the view of the maritime scene. Then the PA came alive with an announcement that a special children’s event was to take place inside. Grayson and Mary Ann now disappeared only to return deck side when we were coming into Livingston. Grayson informed me that she had seen a movie, played some games, took part in dancing and singing, and had had a great time. I kept my mouth shut and did not point out all the passing ships she had not seen.

I noted that at least half of the passengers carried by Badger were walk ons or had boarded Badger at Ludington for a day’s voyage across Lake Michigan. As Badger entered Ludington harbor, we passed Spartan tied up to a nearby dock. She sits there forlorn, only visited when a part is needed to keep Badger operating. Once we tied up at Ludington, we walked ashore and waited for our car to be driven to the car collecting site. It was about a 20 minute wait until our car, one of the last off, arrived. We then drove to our hotel.

If you have not ridden Badger, you should take a road trip to Ludington and set aside a day to ride on her. I was told that the company was planning a 2015 season, but who knows the workings of EPA. If Badger operates in 2015, make sure you get to Ludington, as this may be your last chance to enjoy a ride on a steam powered coal burning American ship.

1. Badger preparing to get underway from Manitowoc for Ludington. You can smell the coal smoke in the air.
Badger preparing to get underway from Manitowoc.

2. The rails that carried freight cars across Lake Michigan can still be seen in Badger’s main deck.
The rails that carried freight cars across Lake Michigan can still be seen in Badger’s main deck.

3. The rails that carried freight cars across Lake Michigan can still be seen in Badger’s main deck. View 2.
The rails that carried freight cars across Lake Michigan can still be seen in Badger’s main deck. View 2.

5. Spartan sits pier side at Ludington waiting for the call to sail, a call that will never come. She is but a floating parts depot to keep her sister ship running.
Spartan sits pier side at Ludington.

6. The cars being driven off of Badger by part of her crew. Note her name “Badger” and home
port “Ludington” centered on her stern. The US 10 route sign is a reminder that Badger is the maritime component that links the eastern section of US 10 with the western section of US 10.
The cars being driven off of Badger.

7. Badger is seen the next morning leaving Ludington for Manitowoc with another load of cars and passengers. A group of people always walk out to the lighthouse to wave good-by to Badger and wish her a safe journey.
Badger is seen the next morning leaving Ludington.

Images used by permission of Charles H Bogart

last update - 25 Feb 2015