Steamship Sunday – The Coal Burning S.S. Badger on Lake Michigan

Steamship Sunday

Hat Tip_2

Hat tip to “B-Squared” for suggesting this post.


On its way to Wisconsin from Michigan, S.S. Badger sails past the Ludington Light from the port of Ludington, Michigan.

S.S. Badger – The Last Coal Burning Steam Ship in the U.S.

Some sixty years ago, a healthy number of vehicle ferry boats operated on Lake Michigan. Most of these ships were designed to accommodate rail cars and/or truck trailers as well as passengers. In 1953, S.S. Badger entered service on Lake Michigan along with her sister ship, S.S. Spartan. Badger was named after the mascot of the University of Wisconsin and Spartan took her name from the team name of Michigan State University.

S.S. Badger-1952

S.S. Badger in 1952, just prior to launching. Note the configuration of the ways. Badger was launched sideways rather than longitudinally. She was built at Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin and launched horizontally into Sturgeon Bay.

A unique feature of the sister ships is that when almost all steam ships built over the previous 50 years had been built to burn oil, Badger and Spartan were built to burn coal. Spartan is now retired, but Badger ferries on and is the last remaining large coal burning ship in service in the U.S.

She is powered by a coal burning version of the Skinner Unaflow steam engine. Oil burning  Skinner Unaflow engines powered the Casablanca-class Escort Carriers built by Kaiser in World War II. We read about the Escort Carriers and their heroic role in the Battle of Samar a few weeks ago. The word “Unaflow” is not a misspelling. This is the name for the uniflow type of steam engine used by the Skinner Engine Company of Erie, Pennsylvania. The uniflow steam engines are configured so that steam enters from each end of the cylinder and exhausts through the center.

In these engines, steam flows in one direction only in each half of the cylinder. Thermal efficiency is achieved by having a temperature gradient along the cylinder. Steam always enters at the hot ends of the cylinder and exhausts through ports at the cooler center. By this means, the relative heating and cooling of the cylinder walls is reduced.


S.S. Badger is also unusual in that it she a registered historical site in two states. The Michigan Historical Commission and the Wisconsin Historical commission each named Badger as a registered historical site in 1997. In 1996 Badger’s Skinner Unaflow engine was designated a mechanical engineering landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. In 2002 Badger was named Ship of the Year by the Steamship Historical Society of America. The ship was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 11, 2009. On January 20, 2016, the National Park Service designated the ship a National Historic Landmark.

Currently, the ship shuttles between Ludington, Michigan, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, connecting U.S. Highway 10 between those two cities. In the heyday of the ferry boats on Lake Michigan, Badger and Spartan also called on Milwaukee and Kewaunee in Wisconsin, though Ludington was their only call on the Michigan side.

When the sister ships entered service in 1953, they were operated by the Chesapeake and Ohio railway. Rugged ships, they were built with reinforced hulls for ice breaking. Initially, they operated year-round. The C&O had acquired the rail car ferry operations in Ludington with its acquisition of the Pere Marquette Railway in 1947. The Pere Marquette Railway had other ferry boats at the time of the C&O acquisition.

After 1972, service was gradually curtailed. All but the three newest vessels were retired. Sailings to Milwaukee and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, were discontinued, leaving only the route between Ludington and Kewaunee, Wisconsin. On July 1, 1983, the Chessie System ended its car ferry service when it sold the steamers Badger, Spartan and City of Midland 41 to Glen F. Bowden of Ludington. He organized the Michigan–Wisconsin Transportation Company (MWT) to continue the operation.

The railroad car ferry concept on Lake Michigan was facing serious economic troubles during the 1980s and by November 1988, Badger was the only vessel running. It was the last of the 14 ferries based in Ludington remaining in service. On 16 November, 1990, facing bankruptcy, Bowden laid up the Badger, ending 93 years of railway car ferry service out of Ludington and 98 years on Lake Michigan as a whole.

After sitting idle for a year, the three ferries were purchased by entrepreneur, philanthropist and Ludington-native Charles F. Conrad of Holland, Michigan. He undertook a major overhaul and refit of Badger exclusively for carrying passengers and automobiles. The only operating ferry of its kind in the world, the ship has become an icon of car ferry heritage on the Great Lakes. Conrad retired as president of Lake Michigan Carferry Service in 1993. He died on 9 February, 1995. Since 1993 the company has been headed by his son-in-law, Robert Manglitz.

When Conrad resumed Badger’s service across Lake Michigan, the service between Manitowoc and Ludington was restored. Badger currently does not call on any other cities. In 2015, the ferry was officially designated as part of US 10, thus linking together the two disconnected segments of the highway.

Badger map

Badger completes a trip across Lake Michigan in about four hours, covering 60 miles. The ferry saves about three and a half hours of travel time compared to the 411-mile drive from Manitowoc to Ludington via Chicago, which would take approximately seven hours or more (depending on Chicago traffic). The ferry offers a number of entertainment options and eating facilities on board, as well as passenger staterooms equipped with sleeping berths. Because of her size and rugged construction, Badger rarely misses a sailing due to weather. Currently she operates from May through October.

Badger is 410′ 6″ long, has a beam of 59′ 6″ and is 24′ deep. Her large deck space allows her to transport tractor trailers and larger commercial loads. In 2012, she carried more than 1,000 commercial loads. The ship sometimes carries wind turbine components from Wisconsin. These wind turbine components are 150 feet long and weigh 150,000 pounds.

Given that she burns coal, it will come as no surprise to you to read that Badger became a target of the out-of-control U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Naturally, various “environmental” groups joined the EPA’s battle against Badger. They objected to Badger dumping the 3.6 tons of ash left as waste from the 50 tons of coal she burns a day into Lake Michigan. The company’s position on this was that dumping the ash into the lake was no different from dumping sand into the lake. Naturally, the EPA and the “environmental” groups allied with the EPA were having none of it.

Badger had earlier been the subject of EPA Clean Air action but was granted an exemption under the law due to her historical significance as a coal-fired, steam-powered vessel. Company officials compared coal ash to “harmless sand” and planned to keep her in her original coal-burning configuration. Nonetheless, in an effort to continue to minimize the “environmental impact” to the lake, the Lake Michigan Carferry had explored a number of alternatives including storing the ash on board and unloading upon arrival in Ludington. The EPA pressed on and Lake Michigan Carferry signed a consent decree with the United States Department of Justice and the EPA in March 2013 to end ash discharge within two years, utilizing a new ash retention system.

In January 2015 work began on a conveyor system that will store ash in four containment bins on board. A new combustion control system will allow the ship to be more efficient by burning less coal and generating less ash. Badger was retrofitted so that she will no longer discharge ash into the lake, and has been certified to return to service. The ash will now be off-loaded and used to make cement.

Badger’s website is HERE where you will find her sailing schedule and prices.



Add yours →

  1. Gordon F. Kertzel,lll 14/08/2016 — 06:12

    If Queen Hillary wins, historic status or not, this wonderful piece of history will be in dry dock!!! After all, it burns all that EVIL coal! Thanks for another great piece, Paul. Gordon


  2. Jack Darnell 14/08/2016 — 07:10

    Agree with Gordon. For this southern Boy it was impossible to think of SHIPS on a Lake, until I started traveling and saw the great lakes. Now having driven around lake Michigan, I can understand BIG, HUGE etc. I was in awe of this land bound SEA called a lake.
    Very good article, enjoyed the history read.


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