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.

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It was a great start to our vacation!

 

 

Museum Round Up: Year of Museums, Part I.

Back in January, I wrote that my New Year’s Resolution was to visit one museum a month for 2014. We’re now almost halfway through the year, and a regular reader of my blog would think that I had completely failed at my year of museums! In fact, I have visited a number of museums (although not quite one a month) but I haven’t written about any of them here. So I thought I would do a quick round up of my Year of Museums so far, and mention some of my upcoming museum plans.

I really didn’t make it to many museums in the early part of the year, and none at all in Michigan. In January, I visited Mabry Mill along the Blue Ridge Parkway while visiting family in Virginia. Mabry Mill is an outdoor complex that features a number of historic structures, including a sawmill, gristmill and blacksmith’s shop. Unfortunately, the buildings are only open from May-October, so during our January visit we could only walk around the exteriors and read some of the interpretive signs. It was still very interesting, and the scenery along the Blue Ridge Parkway was stunning, even in winter. I’d love to go back in the summer sometime, but it’s a bit far away!

Mabry Mill in Virginia

Mabry Mill in Virginia

In April, I visited the Arab American National Museum for the first time in a few years. The building itself is an architectural beauty and the exhibits inside are equally impressive. There are three main exhibits on the top floor: Coming to America, Living in America and Making an Impact, as well as a rotating exhibit space on the first floor. When we were there it was an exhibit on art in the Orthodox church, which I thought was fascinating. I don’t want to give too much of a review of the museum here, as it turns out I’m going to be spending a lot more time at the AANM in the future – I was recently offered a position there in the collections department, so I will be starting a new job in a few weeks!

Gorgeous ceiling at the Arab American National Museum

Gorgeous ceiling at the Arab American National Museum

May was a museum bonanza – I visited 3 that month alone! The Detroit Historical Museum was first, and I brought my grandparents as a late Christmas gift (my parents came along as well). I thought it had been a while since I had visited that particular museum, but they said they hadn’t been there since the 1960s or 70s! The newly remodeled exhibits were amazing, and included lots of fun interactive activities. Because I visited with my grandparents and my parents, all of whom have spent most of their lives in Metro Detroit, I especially enjoyed the Allesee Gallery of Culture. The Gallery of Culture isn’t one of the big, maquee exhibits. It is just one circular room, set up as a timeline of Detroit in the 20th century. Each section covers a decade or two and contains stories about living in Detroit in that era and artifacts and images from the era as well. It was so fun to go through this room with my parents and grandparents, because we were all drawn to the different sections that resonated with us.  I really enjoyed hearing my family talk about the different items and events they remembered that were represented in the exhibit. I imagine this exhibit isn’t ideal for an out-of-towner, or a group of friends the same age, but if you are bringing family to the museum, it is a wonderful multi-generational conversation starter!

Allesee Gallery of Culture

Allesee Gallery of Culture

A few weeks after the DHS, I went to the Detroit Institute of Arts with some friends to check out their traveling exhibition “Samurai: Beyond the Sword.” It was an excellent exhibit, but obviously had nothing to do with Michigan history, so I won’t talk to much about it here. You can read more about the history of the DIA here. I do want to note that I love love love that the DIA is open late on Fridays, AND serves drinks and food downstairs in the Kresge Court. I love being able to go to an exhibition at 8pm and then hang out with a glass of wine in the middle of a museum (of course, the wine stays in the court). Maybe that sounds like a lame Friday night, but judging by the number of people that were there at the same time, I’m clearly not the only one who enjoys history and art in the evening! Oh, and of course I spent a few minutes in Rivera Court – I can’t visit the DIA with out spending time with the Diego Rivera murals. Rivera Court is mostly lit through skylights, so it becomes darker in the evening, giving it a more ominous look.

"Detroit Industry" by Diego Rivera

“Detroit Industry” by Diego Rivera

My last museum in May was the Thumb Octagon Barn Agricultural Museum. This was a surprise museum trip while I was visiting my sister in, where else, the thumb of Michigan. She wouldn’t tell me where we were going until we got there! It was a lot bigger than I expected. Besides the barn, which is huge (and of course, 8-sided), there’s also a one-room schoolhouse, a small schoolhouse museum, a carriage house, and the farmhouse itself. We received a tour of most of the buildings from one of the volunteer docents, who drove us all over the complex in a golf cart. While the other buildings are interesting, the barn is clearly the centerpiece of the museum. Built in 1923-1924, the owner modeled it after a similar barn he had seen in Indiana. At the time, round and octagon barns were hailed as the “barn of the future” because you could fit more square footage inside one. That idea definitely rings true with this barn – it’s huge, at 102 feet across and 70 feet high. The architects employed a unique ventilation system to regulate the temperature inside so it does not become stuffy, even on the higher levels. It was a fascinating piece of architecture, both when it was built and today. Currently, the main floor is used for events, and also has a display of buggies. The second floor is filled with a variety of agricultural instruments from the 19th and 20th centuries. There is also a small exhibit sponsored by one of the local electrical companies, which features a number of early electrical appliances. It is certainly a unique museum that is worth a stop if you ever find yourself out that way.

Thumb Octagon Barn Agricultural Museum

Thumb Octagon Barn Agricultural Museum

That completes my museum round up! As it stands right now, we’re 6 months into 2014 and I’ve visited 5 museums. 4 in Michigan, 3 about local history. Not bad! I should be adding a bit to that list in a few weeks, as I’m heading up the U.P. on vacation, and I’m looking to hit a few museums up there. I’ll be mostly in the Keweenaw peninsula, so I’m using the list of museums and historic sites on the Keweenaw National Historic Park website for ideas on what to visit. Feel free to leave me some suggestions in the comments, I’d love to hear what places I shouldn’t miss!

 

Beautiful Bay City

Tall ship on the Saginaw river outside my hotel room

Tall ship on the Saginaw river outside my hotel room

Last week I had the opportunity to attend the Michigan Museums Association‘s annual conference. The conference this year was in Bay City, which meant it was an easy 1.5 hour drive from Metro Detroit. The conference itself was wonderful, and I also really enjoyed getting the chance to see the town. I’ve never stopped in Bay City before, just driven through, and I admit I never thought of it as much of a destination. Therefore I was pleasantly surprised by everything I got to see during the two day conference – receptions were held at the historic State Theater and the Historical Museum of Bay County and I also went on a brief tour of the Central Avenue Historic district.

Soon after I arrived the first night, I headed over to the State Theater for the opening reception. The theater was easy to spot – its brightly colored marquee and sign are visible a few blocks away. I was excited to visit the venue as I love old theaters (so very elegant!), but I soon realized this was no ordinary fancy old theater. The State Theater is decorated in a Art Deco Mayan Revival style – one of only four such theaters in the country.  The Mayan motif is prevalent both inside and outside the theater. The outside is designed to evoke a Mayan pyramid, and the inside only furthers that imagery. The interior walls are made to look like stone, peppered with Mayan images and geometric patterns. It is a very beautiful, and very unique, theater.

State Theater

State Theater

During the reception, we heard from the director of the theater, who gave a talk and showed a film about its history. Built in 1908 and originally called the Bijou, it started out showing live entertainment such as vaudeville. In the 1920s, with the rising popularity of film, the theater was converted to show movies and renamed the Orpheum. It wasn’t until the 1930s that the theater was renovated in the Mayan Revival style. The man behind the renovation was C. Howard Crane, who also designed the Fox Theater in downtown Detroit (and the Fox’s twin in St. Louis). The theater remained very popular for many years, but like many old movie houses, began to fall out of favor by the second half of the 20th century. In 1960 it was bought by the Butterfield Theater chain, who changed the name to the State Theater, removed the Mayan marquee outside and painted the interior brown, covering up the 1930s renovation. The theater continued to lose patrons and was threatened with destruction in 2000, when a group of local citizens formed a group to save and renovate the theater. The organization, originally known as the Friends of the State Theater, managed to raise enough money to save the theater and restore the 1930s design. The group, now known as the Historic State Theater Organization, still runs the building and is committed to bringing both live and film entertainment to the Bay City region. The story of the State Theater is a great example of how local historic preservation done well – the theater was saved, restored and then put back into use.

The next evening, another reception was held at the Historical Museum of Bay County, run by the Bay County Historical Society. The event really focused on the local community. Not only were we visiting a local historical museum, but we were served all locally made food and drinks. The food was great – and so were the drinks! Let me tell you, nothing quite beats walking around a museum with a locally brewed beer in hand. I really enjoyed the museum itself as well. I wasn’t able to be quite as thorough in my visit as I usually am at a museum, as I was busy talking to other museum folks from around the state, but I still managed to see some pretty great stuff.  Here are some pictures:

Main room of the museum

Main room of the museum

You can't have a northern (ish) Michigan museum without a display on logging!

You can’t have a northern(ish) Michigan museum without a display on logging!

Drinking beer while reading about beer!

Drinking beer while reading about beer!

Definitely pay a visit to the Bay County Historical Society if you are ever in Bay City!

One of the sessions I attended featured an employees of the Bay County Historical Society, who discussed a new virtual walking tour they had created through a collaboration with the company Map-N-Tour. The tour, which is available via an app on your smartphone or tablet, is overlaid on a Google Earth image of the area. It is a tour of the Central Avenue Historic District, which features a number of beautifully restored historic homes. Many of the homes date from the 19th century lumber boom in Michigan, while others are early 20th century “kit homes” designed by Bay City manufacturers Aladdin and Lewis & Liberty Co. If you are accessing the tour from out of town, you can just click on each marker and it will show you a picture and tell you about the home. If you are on Central Avenue, it integrates with Google Maps to shows you where you are so you can easily learn about the house directly in front of you. After the conference ended, a colleague and I decided to drive along Central Ave to see the homes and test out the app. The homes were amazing, especially the ones along the main road. It was really interesting to see the many different styles, from Victorian gingerbread houses to mid-century modern, all in one place. The app worked well, although it would have been better as a walking tour than a driving one. We were going too quickly for me to have time to pull up and read information on each house, so I finally just settled for looking at all of them, and trying to take pictures through the window. I’d love to go back at walk up and down the avenue when I have more time!

A few of the houses:

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All in all, the conference was very enjoyable. I loved meeting people from different museums around the state and gained a ton of new ideas for my own job. And it was wonderful to get a chance to explore a city I never knew much about! Here’s to Beautiful Bay City 🙂

Loving this swag from the conference!

Loving this swag from the conference!