Ferry across Lake Michigan on the S.S. Badger. You’ll experience a unique ride from a bygone era, when ships ferried loaded railroad freight cars.
The S.S. Badger ferries people and vehicles across a 60-mile stretch of Lake Michigan between Ludington, Michigan and Manitowoc, Wisconsin daily from late May through early October. Besides reducing driving time and miles for passengers, the S.S. Badger – named for the University of Wisconsin mascot, Bucky Badger – provides a ride on the only coal-fired steamship in operation in the United States.
An EPA mandate requires the ship to stop discharging coal ash in 2012. “It doesn’t mandate we have to change the fuel source,” says Lynda Matson, Vice President of Customer Service and Marketing for the ferry. “There are other options; we are confident we have a great option moving forward.”
S. S. Badger History
Launched in 1953 during the heyday of carferries, ships that transported loaded railroad freight cars, the 410-foot Badger stopped its service in 1990, after the railroad freight business in general had dried up. The ship wasn’t idle for long.
Charles Conrad in 1991 purchased the ferry company and updated the Badger for the tourist industry. The Badger began its new life in 1992 under the management of Lake Michigan Carferry Service, continuing a century-long tradition. In 2009, the S.S. Badger was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
During the four-hour trip between ports, passengers can visit the museum, where exhibits interpret the history of carferries on Lake Michigan. The maritime tradition, begun in 1892, came about to reduce the time and expense of transferring loads from railcars to ships at one port and reloading the cars at the destination port. The museum also contains a plaque that explains why the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1996 designated the Badger’s propulsion system a mechanical engineering landmark.
If museums aren’t for you, you may enjoy a game of Badger Bingo, watching a movie, snoozing in a deck chair, playing video games, shopping in the Boatique or dining. If you make six laps around the upper deck, you’ll have logged a mile.
My husband and I witnessed all the above activities, after we boarded the S.S. Badger at Ludington in August 2011. The ship cast off precisely at 9:00am. We motored through the harbor, past the Coast Guard station, past the Ludington North Breakwater Light and into open water.
From deck we watched the dunes along the shore and the Big Sable Point Lighthouse in Ludington State Park recede and disappear. We watched the black coal smoke from the engine trace a wide curve beneath the pale gray sky. We relaxed, read and watched other passengers.
After a smooth ride on the lake, we glided past another breakwater light and into Manitowoc’s harbor on time. As soon as we disembarked, we found our car waiting for us. We enjoyed the friendly, efficient service the ship’s crew provided.
“If you’ve done it before, you still want to come back,” says Matson. “We add new things every year.”
Address: 701 Maritime Dr, Ludington, MI 49431