Friday, July 25, 2014

Leaping the Lake to Lambeau

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.
We used a photo op to give Lee a souvenir.
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.

Of course, University of Wisconsin sports teams are "Badgers," so perhaps the sister ship was named just to even things up in cross-lake traffic. "Spartans" represent Michigan State University in athletics. The SS Spartan was retired from service in 1979 and now rests in the harbor at Ludington, Michigan, near the dock used by the Badger, serving only to supply replacement parts for its sister ship. 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 Manitowoc, Wisconsin, takes about 4 hours. But driving between those cities via the northern route that crosses the Mackinac Bridge takes about 8 hours. Taking a southern route through Chicago would keep you on the road about 7 hours, but that trip can be much longer during rush hours.
The Badger can carry big rigs, such as the Budweiser Clydesdales' truck.
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 Milwaukee harbor. "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.


Anonymous said...

As strange as it may sound, I woke up this AM and found myself wondering if this ferry still crosses Lake Michigan. She is grand indeed. Thanks for the interesting post.

Alan G said...

Enjoyed the post and history. I have never had the pleasure of riding on a ferry although I would certainly jump at the chance should it arise.