|The SS Badger may be steaming toward forced retirement.|
That ship we once sang the sad song about was, of course, the Titanic. Until fairly recently, the Titanic had no relationship to the SS Badger, except both carried a whole lot of passengers. Now the Badger also may be a doomed vessel.
As a little boy, one thing I penciled onto my bucket list was to cross Lake Michigan aboard a car ferry. I’m not sure why. When I got the idea, I had never seen Lake Michigan. My family didn't own a car. I admired the glamorized image of a car ferry on the covers of writing tablets we used in school. That was all the motivation I can recall. It wasn’t much, but I never lost the yen to make the trip.
Six years ago, I finally crossed that one off my list. We had driven from Utah and stopped to see relatives in Wisconsin on our way to visit our son in Michigan. The stars were right to fulfill my little-boy dream. We drove north to Manitowoc, watched as our car was driven onto the Badger, and settled down in deck chairs for a great adventure on a bright, sunny day. The novelty soon wore off.
The 60-mile trip across the lake to Ludington took a full four hours. Although the Badger includes a maritime museum room, shows movies in another area, and has a good galley crew serving up short-order food, I’m sorry to report the trip is dull. Two things constitute the scenery on a trip across Lake Michigan—water and sky. We saw what appeared to be two other vessels in the distance during the whole trip. It was dull, dull, dull.
Dull or not, the SS Badger has been crossing the lake with few interruptions since 1953. It is the last of 14 car ferries to be based in Ludington. Service from that port began in 1897, mostly to carry railroad cars between Michigan and Wisconsin. The Badger was built to carry railroad cars. It is both big and tough. With a reinforced hull for ice-breaking, she originally crossed the lake all year long. The need to move railroad cars ended in the 1980s, and in 1992 the ship was refitted to exclusively carry autos and passengers. It no longer sailed in winter. Nevertheless, it still makes 490 port calls per year.
The Badger is the last large coal-burning steamship in the United States. That’s the problem. Its boilers consume huge amounts of coal, and disposing of the coal ash waste in Lake Michigan waters caught the attention of environmental groups and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency several years ago. EPA demanded a change to keep the pollutants out of the lake, and Badger owners face a deadline at the end of next year to find a way to dispose of the waste on land or substitute some other power-generating system. If they don’t, the ship’s sailing days will be over.
In somewhat of a reversal of the usual pattern when Great Lakes water quality is at issue, citizens groups are forming to petition EPA to lift the order against the historic ship, or at least extend the deadline. The main group is titled S.O.S. for Save Our Ship. It seems appropriate.
The Geezer is torn. I fully endorse measures to protect or improve water quality in the Great Lakes and elsewhere. But I also love history, and, after all, that steamship is part of a colorful heritage of lake navigation. Both Michigan and Wisconsin have declared the ship to be among their historic treasures.
Despite my good feelings toward the old Badger, we figuratively jumped ship after my one voyage. Since we moved to Michigan, beautiful wife Sandy has made three trips across the lake to visit her Wisconsin relatives. I put her aboard the Lake Express in Muskegon for those journeys. She arrives in Milwaukee in two and one-half hours, not four, although that trip also is 60 miles.
The Express is a twin-hulled catamaran powered by four Detroit Diesel engines. She holds 42 vehicles, far fewer than the Badger, but the Express has plenty of room for passengers and can travel at 40 m.p.h. When I asked Sandy how the first trip went she said, “Dull, but at least it wasn’t dull for four hours.”
While waiting for Sandy in Muskegon after her latest lake journey, I struck up a conversation with a fully mature adult who was waiting to make the trip to Wisconsin. He said, “You know, when I was a college kid I had a chance to work one summer on the SS Badger out of Ludington. I took a different job. Wouldn’t that have been something to remember if I’d have joined the crew when I had the chance?”
Maybe. He could have become a part of history, but he might have spent a pretty dull summer earning the honor.