|The SS Badger leaving Ludington harbor. (photo from the ship's web page)|
Our son Lee and I needed a road trip from our Michigan homes to Wisconsin.
Lee had business to do near
Madison with a gallery displaying some of his
stained glass art. I had a bucket list item to attend to--a visit to Green Bay to get a look
at Lambeau Field after several hundred million dollars in renovations and
expansions since I last was there to see a Packers game about 40 years ago. We
decided it would be fun to go the old fashioned way, with a 60-mile voyage
across Lake Michigan aboard the SS Badger.
A "road trip" on a boat? Among other SS Badger trivia is the fact that it officially is part of U.S. Highway 10, linking the eastern and western sections of the route. We were amused by the highway sign displayed prominently on the ship, and thought it was a joke--a bit of research proved it wasn't. Another thing sets the Badger apart from other ferries; it is the only vessel registered as a historical site by two states.
The Badger is the last large coal-burning steamship in the
United States, where many once sailed the Great Lakes and other waterways. It and a sister ship,
the SS Spartan, were built in 1952 in a Wisconsin
shipyard and launched the next year.
are "Badgers," so perhaps the sister ship was named just to even
things up in cross-lake traffic. "Spartans" represent University
in athletics. The SS Spartan was retired from service in 1979 and now rests in
the harbor at Michigan State University , near the dock used by the Badger,
serving only to supply replacement parts for its sister ship. Ludington, Michigan Michigan comes out on top in daily
operations, however. The Badger runs on eastern time; Wisconsin is in the central time zone. Michigan also has the
upper hand financially, the state collects the sales tax on all tickets.
The Badger, built with a reinforced hull, originally served as an ice breaker as well as a commercial vessel. It traveled between
Wisconsin and Michigan
year round. It is a big ship. An important use for many years was transporting
railroad cars between the two states. We saw the railroad tracks imbedded in
the floor of the hold where now only motor vehicles are carried. The Chesapeake and Ohio
Railroad owned the ship for many years.
The need for railroad car transfers gradually declined, and in 1983 railroad interests sold the Badger. It was rebuilt and remodeled for service with an emphasis on carrying autos and passengers. However, it still has commercial uses. A huge tanker truck was driven into the hold shortly after our mid-sized sedan went aboard. A crew member said an important business for the ship is transporting oversized trucks carrying blades for giant windmills that generate electricity in new developments.
The Badger can carry 600 passengers and up to 180 vehicles. Nowadays, it runs from May 16 to Oct. 26. It travels slowly. The 60-mile trip from Ludington to
, takes about 4 hours.
But driving between those cities via the northern route that crosses the Manitowoc,
Wisconsin takes about 8 hours. Taking a
southern route through Mackinac Bridge Chicago
would keep you on the road about 7 hours, but that trip can be much longer
during rush hours.
Unless one has a fascination for gazing at unbroken stretches of sky and water, a cross-lake journey can be dull. Badger management tries to make up for this with activities similar to those offered on a grander scale by ocean liners. Food and drink is available in a large cafeteria and a smaller lounge that has a well-stocked bar. A museum room has exhibits tracing the ship's history in detail. A few of the 50 to 60 crew members are hired as entertainers. A bingo game was in progress in one large area throughout most of our trip. Children were being entertained with a variety of games.
Ours was Lee's first voyage on the Badger, and my second. We had a ball exploring the old ship and agreed running our road trip over the waves was a good idea.
The conclusion of the trip was to be another lake crossing, which would be a first for both of us. We planned our return to
Michigan via the Lake
Express, a much newer ferry than the
Badger that sails from Milwaukee to Muskegon and beats the
older ship's travel time by about an hour and a half. Beautiful wife Sandy has
traveled on the Express many times, and highly recommended it.
The phone call came when we were about five miles from the
"We're sorry, but we have high winds and waves on the lake, and passengers
wouldn't be comfortable. Our remaining trip today is cancelled."
Oh yes, several of the various descriptions of the SS Badger claim because of its size and design it seldom cancels a trip due to bad weather. We thought about that several times as we sat motionless on
Chicago expressways or in countless construction zones in Indiana.
I phoned the Badger office today to check. "Did you folks cancel any of your trips on Wednesday?"
"Oh, no. We made all crossings on schedule."
Apparently, the grand old lady of The Great Lakes still has some good sailing in her and even can outdo a younger upstart sometimes.