Road Trippin’: The S.S. Badger

Back in June, My husband and I went on a road trip around Michigan and Wisconsin. While on the trip, I took about a bazillion pictures and kept thinking “this will be great material for my blog!” And yet here I am, over a month later, with not a word written about any of the places we visited. Unacceptable. I’m hoping to start changing that soon, starting with this post!

One of our plans for our trips was a weekend of camping with some college friends in Wisconsin. Rather than drive through Chicago to get there, we chose to take the S.S. Badger, a former rail car carrier-turned passenger car ferry that runs between Ludington, MI and Manitowoc, WI. The Badger is a fascinating piece of history. Built in 1953, it is the only coal powered ship still plying the great lakes. Its old-fashioned engineering makes it both a nostalgic throwback as well as an environmental concern. More on those environmental concerns later – first, a bit on the history.


The S.S. Badger

The S.S. Badger after landing in Manitowoc

The Badger spent most of its early days as transportation for railroad cars on the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C&O had bought out the Pere Marquette Railway a few years previously). In those days, the Badger was just one of many ships bringing rail cars across the lake. The practice started in the late 19th century, when it was discovered that it was more efficient to load railroad cars onto a ship than to drive them around the lake. By the 1950s, ships carried rail cars all over the lakes. When it was first commissioned, the Badger ran from Ludington to multiple Wisconsin ports, including Milwaukee, Manitowoc and Kewaunee. Fun fact: as you may have guessed, the Badger was named after the mascot of the University of Wisconsin. But don’t think there was any favoritism going on – a sister ship named for Michigan State University, the S.S. Spartan, was built at the same time.

The Badger in its heyday (source)

The Badger in its heyday (source)


Unfortunately for the Badger, changing transportation economics and technology spelled the end for the Lake Michigan fleet as rail car ferries became less profitable after mid-century. Most railways began slowing operations on the lake in the 1970s, and many closed up shop for good in the 1980s. The Badger was the last holdout, but was finally docked for good in 1990.

It didn’t stay docked for long, however. In 1991, Charles Conrad bought it (along with the Spartan and the S.S. City of Midland) and began work on refurbishing the Badger as passenger car ferry. Conrad grew up in Ludington and was the son of a former railroad engineer. He felt that car ferries were an important part of the lakes, and wanted to keep one running. And he was successful! The Badger returned to regular runs in May of 1992, and has continued providing trips across the lake for travelers ever since. It currently acts as a section of US-10 and ferries up to 600 passengers and 180 vehicles each run (not just cars – it takes semi-trucks as well!) Thanks to Conrad’s vision, an important piece of Great Lakes history lives on.

In line to get on the ship, you can see that it is labeled as part of U.S. 10

In line to get on the ship, you can see that it is labeled as part of U.S. 10

By the way, I’m not sure what happened to the City of Midland, but the Spartan lives on as a spare parts depot for the Badger. Tough luck, MSU.

The ship has captured the hearts of many who see it as a valuable historic landmark. In 1996, the Badger‘s propulsion system was designated a Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In 1997, it was named both a Michigan and Wisconsin Historical Site. Finally, in 2009, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

And car ferry of the year in 2002, according to this plaque

And it was named car ferry of the year in 2002, according to this plaque

However, the ship has many detractors. Remember those environmental concerns I mentioned? There are a number of reasons why coal-powered ships are no longer the norm on the Great Lakes, and the damage to the environment is a big one. The process used by the Badger‘s propulsion systems creates a huge amount of waste, which is described by the EPA as a “coal-ash slurry.” This slurry has always been just dumped into the lake  – a practice that was considered acceptable in the 1950s, but not today. In 2008, the EPA began to crack down on the practice, and put pressure on the Badger  to either stop dumping in the lake or close down entirely. The owners asked for more time, and they were given until 2012 to find a solution. In 2011, it was clear that the ship wasn’t going to meet it’s deadline, and the EPA gave it another two-year reprieve, meaning that it needs to stop dumping ash by the end of the 2014 season – this year.

To be clear, this coal-ash slurry is no little matter. The ferry currently dumps about 509 tons of coal ash a year, while all other freighters that run on the Great Lakes dump around 89 tons combined (source)That’s a huge difference!

Fortunately, the ship’s owners have begun to make some changes. Last winter, they spent $1 million to install a new high-tech combustion-control system that is reducing this summer’s coal-dumping by 15%-20%. Next winter, they plan to spend another $1 million to install an ash-retention system that will keep the coal ash on board, allowing them to transport it to a landfill on land rather than dump it into the lake (or possibly even sell it for industrial use). These changes should allow the Badger to continue sailing with EPA approval. Some environmentalists still aren’t satisfied, stating that the smokey emissions from the ship are still damaging and that simply moving the ash to landfills isn’t solving the issue.

The Badger has become quite a contentious piece of living history in the past few years. Depending on which side of the issue you are on, this battle is either between environmental safety and a backwards old ship, or between a historic maritime landmark and an overzealous government. I have to say, as much as I love the Badger, I’m leaning towards the side of the environmentalists. Being able to ride a piece of history was great, but having clean lakes is more important. I’m glad they are starting to implement a solution. Hopefully the Badger will continue to delight travelers with a historic method of travel over Lake Michigan, with only one bit of history missing – the pollution.


It was a great start to our vacation!




One thought on “Road Trippin’: The S.S. Badger

  1. Pingback: Museums Round Up Part II | Mitten History

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