The SS Badger, Historic Boating

A splendid ride across Lake Michigan

Published in the August 2018 Issue March 2021 Editorials, Feature Emily FitzPatrick

“History is for human self-knowledge...The only clue to what man can do is what man has done,” once said R. G. Collingwood. “The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is."

The SS Badger is a floating piece of history that still has a lot to teach the world. The Badger is the last coal-fired passenger steamship in the United States and has watched the destruction of its fellow steamboats, including its sister ship, the SS Spartan, but it continues to sail gracefully across Lake Michigan year after year.

The SS Badger and the SS Spartan were originally launched in 1952 and were among the last steamboats built in the United States. As railroads improved it became unnecessary for the ferries to run. In 1980, trips across the lake were brought to a halt and it seemed that the sister ships would both be destined for the scrap yard. However, in 1992 Charles Conrad purchased the ships and invested in making the SS Badger a leisurely travel vessel for guests and their vehicles.

Scraps from the Spartan now help to sustain the Badger, the sister ships still supporting each other though one will never cross Michigan again. Once designed to carry railroad cars across the lake, the Badger is now capable of hosting 600 passengers and 180 vehicles, and remains an important part of culture in areas such as Manitowoc County, Wis.

A Summer Destination

Those who live in Manitowoc County look at the summer travel season a little bit differently than most. For Manitowoc the summer tour season begins when the car ferry starts running, which is generally in May. The summer season continues all the way until the car-ferry stops running in October. Manitowoc sees an added influx of visitors coming off the car ferry during the summer time and it makes a noticeable impact in their community.

Many of Manitowoc’s businesses in the downtown area are right along the path of traffic coming off the car ferry. Businesses in the downtown area are staffed with more people to help with the rush that occurs when the car ferry traffic comes in. People either stop to have lunch, or shop, or visit attractions.

A Luxury

The only way to get across Lake Michigan other than the Badger is by skiing or walking across it when it freezes in winter. However, the lake hasn’t frozen in over 50 years, so the Badger remains a staple luxury – for lack of a better term – for those in Manitowoc County, providing guests of the ferry with a way to quickly cross the river during the summer months, while at the same time enjoying a luxurious stay onboard.

The Badger boasts a number of amenities to keep guests entertained during their ride across the Great Lake, including lounge areas, gift shops, restaurants, play areas, bars, and decks to stroll upon outdoors. Updated for this modern era, guests can plug in while aboard, connect to Wi-Fi and get work done while traveling back and forth.

Whether the car ferry is a luxury or a necessity depends on a lot of factors. The car ferry can save time, but guests must have an unbending travel plan. Everything must be perfectly planned, because of the Badger’s strict schedule.

The car ferry has been a useful tool for Jason Ring, executive director of Manitowoc Area Visitor & Convention Bureau, including when he recently used the ferry to get across the lake to attend a wedding.

“I got to spend my time driving everyone else around, because I was the only one who had a car there, but it worked out great,” Ringer detailed. “I was able to take the ferry on the overnight crossing. I slept on the boat and then drove just a few hours to Detroit and was well-rested and ready to participate in all the wedding activities. For me that trip worked out really well.”

A Continuing Story

Though there are no scary ghost stories or odd legends about the SS Badger, stories of the ferry in its youth continue to get passed around by the locals who remember the past and continue to look forward to more good times.

“People remember the car ferry and tell stories from back in the day when they would take the car ferry long ago and it was still taking train cars across the lake,” Ringer stated. “There was a great passenger deck before it was taking people and cars on it so people would tell those stories from their youth.”

Cars used to be loaded on the upper deck of the car ferry and the train cars underneath were where passenger cars go now. There were also different ramps, where they would drive around a loop of a ramp to get to that upper deck of the car ferry.

The Badger has evolved over the years to allow for more passengers, but it continues to tell a passionate story of endurance, especially when it is compared to the sad ending of the story of its sister ship, the Spartan. The two stand side-by-side, ensuring the next generation can make their own memories and collect their own sets of stories to tell about their journey across Lake Michigan.

“It’s neat when you get into Michigan and you see a ship that looks just like it that they dock near by and that other ship is never going to sail again,” Ringer explained. “But that ship survives because the other is there.”


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