Former railroad car ferry converted to automobile and passenger service across Lake Michigan.
For more about the SS Badger including more photos, the ship's history and data, and the history of car ferries on the Great Lakes, please see the listing for the Badger on the Historic Bridges of the United States website.
In the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, the preferred method of transportation in the United States was the railroad. In 1915, Emily Post (of etiquette fame) wanted to take the new Lincoln Highway to the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. She asked an associate the best way to San Francisco from New York. Without batting an eye, he replied, "The Union Pacific."
Ms. Post and her son did set out in her automobile, but the railroad was still king of transportation. In the 19th Century, numerous railroad lines sprang up around the country to haul freight and carry passengers to their destinations. One such railroad, The Pere Marquette Railway, operated in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Ontario.
The only way the Pere Marquette could move equipment between their Michigan and Ontario operations was by train ferry across the Detroit River, shown above. The photo of the Detroit River ferry operation was taken from the deck of the Ambassador Bridge. (Note the shadow of the north tower and cables.)
Another natural barrier to rail and road transportation was Lake Michigan. The Pere Marquette had a need to move freight to Wisconsin and points west, but did not have trackage rights to, or through, Chicago. Freight was shipped across the lake in break-bulk, that is, off-loaded from trains, loaded to ships, then transferred to trains on the opposite shore. This inefficient, labor-intensive and expensive method of transport, fueled a need for rail car ferry service. The Pere Marquette was not alone in this need, the Ann Arbor Railroad launched car ferry service on Lake Michigan in 1892 and the Grand Trunk followed in the 1920's. Later in the 20th Century, US Highway 10 would also need to cross Lake Michigan on its way from Detroit to Seattle.
The Pere Marquette Railway operated car ferry service between Ludington and Wisconsin ports in Kewaunee, Milwaukee and Manitowoc from 1897 to 1947. The ferries were built for railroad cars, but automobile service was offered to continue US 10. At one time, US 10 ran from Detroit, north to Port Huron and west to Seattle. Today, US 10 only runs from Bay City, MI to West Fargo, ND, replaced mostly by I-94 and I-90. Parts of the highway sill exist in western states but it is no longer continuous. Both the modern and historical US 10 highways are interrupted by Lake Michigan.
The Pere Marquette Railway was absorbed by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in 1947. In 1951, the C&O placed an order for two new ferries, to be the largest ferries on the Great Lakes. In 1953, the SS Spartan and SS Badger, named for university teams in each of the destination states, became the last coal-fired ferries on the Great Lakes. The peak of car ferry traffic came in the late 1950's but by the end of the 1960's, the car ferries were losing business and fading fast. A private operator bought the car ferry fleet from the Chessie System in 1989, but the attempt to provide ferry service failed.
Charles Conrad, another private investor from Holland, Michigan, bought what was left of the fleet in 1991, including the SS Badger, SS Spartan and SS City of Midland 41. Incorporated as the Lake Michigan Carferry Service, the SS Badger was refurbished and entered service in 1992 as a freight, automobile and passenger ferry. The City of Midland was cut down to a barge in 1997 and only the SS Badger and SS Spartan remain.
The upper level automobile deck was converted to passenger lounge space. The railroad tracks on the car deck have been paved over. In 1964, the superstructure of the Badger was raised 18" to permit taller rail cars to be loaded and this extra height allowed the new owners to add a second automobile deck. Accessed by on-board ramps, the second deck expanded the overall capacity of the ship.
The SS Badger also provides a unique solution to oversize load logistics. Trucks with oversize loads often use the ferry, just like their rail ancestors, to avoid the congested area that surrounds the southern end of Lake Michigan.
The SS Badger is 410' in length and 59'6" at ther beam. The propulsion system is coal-fired steam, driving two Skinner, four cylinder, Unaflow steam engines providing 7,000 horsepower. In 1996 the engine was declared a Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The National Park Service declared the SS Badger a National Landmark in 2016.
The SS Spartan remains unused, tied up in the Ludington harbor. At one time, there were plans to operate the Spartan between Milwaukee and Muskegon, but those plans never came to fruition. With the inauguration of high speed ferry service in 2004, there is doubt that the Spartan will operate in the same corridor as the Lake Express High Speed ferry.
The Spartan will likely never sail again, however, the heavier, and slower Spartan, like her sister ship up north, could still offer that route something the Lake Express Ferry cannot - ferry service for large trucks, oversize loads, and a romantic journey into the nostalgic days when the Pere Marquette carferries were the queens of the Great Lakes.
(Listed on the National Register of Historic Places on December 11, 2009 and designated a Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmarks in 1996 by ASME.)