Northern Michigan in Focus: History of The Badger

The S.S. Badger is an icon on Lake Michigan, traveling from Michigan to Wisconsin for more than 60 years now.

But how much do you really know about this ship’s history? It may surprise you.

Chief photojournalist Corey Adkins takes you back in time for this week’s Northern Michigan in Focus.

It’s 9 a.m. sharp in Ludington, Michigan, and, just like clockwork, The Badger is underway to make the 60 mile trip across Lake Michigan to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. She’s been making these trips since 1953, but the reason it was even built 64 years ago is an interesting story.

“The main reason for the car ferry to be built, originally, with the Pere Marquette Railroad was a regional rail road, mostly in Michigan, and to ship anything east or west they would have to go through Chicago, which was controlled by another rail road, which charged a lot of money to use their track. So to avoid paying that rate, they just built a fleet of ships to cross Lake Michigan,” explained Captain Michael Martin, Lake Michigan Car Ferry.

Seven ferries were built to help move commerce across the lake.

“Back in those days, they were just hauling a lot of general freight, they hauled new automobiles, they hauled the beer, they hauled television sets, anything that was made in this area. Later when Chesapeake, in Ohio owned it, they hauled more coal than anything else,” said Capt. Martin.

Hauling freight from a very different looking Ludington than we know today.

“When this was hauling rail cars, Ludington, like a lot of the cities in the Midwest were a lot more industrial. There are a lot of different factories right downtown Ludington that are gone now. Ludington is has successfully made the transition to a tourist town, it’s a very pretty town,” said Capt. Martin.

For many different reasons, the business model of hauling train cars across the lake faded away. The Badger was the only ferry left sailing when, in the early ‘90s, the Lake Michigan Car Ferry Service bought The Badger. It now had a new purpose.

“Our cargo now is people and automobiles, a lot of RV campers and semi-trucks, too,” said Capt. Martin.

A trip on The Badger is truly like stepping into the days of old. It’s a peaceful and relaxing journey.

“Most people very thrilled with the idea of being on such a historic vessel. There’s lots of open deck space to walk around. It’s a slower paced, relaxed way to cross the lake,” explained Capt. Martin.

And hopefully it will be crossing the lake for 64 more years, and beyond.

“We have a lot of fun taking this old steamboat back-and-forth across Lake Michigan, and we would like everybody to come and experience what it’s like.”

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