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Lake Michigan Carferry Service - SS Badger


SS Badger steams into Manitowoc Harbor

Carferries have been crossing Lake Michigan since 1892. The Pere Marquette Railway offered ferry service, with as many as 13 ferries, from 1897 through 1947 when it was acquired by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. The SS Badger is the last coal-fired ferry operating on the Great Lakes.

Photo taken by J.R. Manning in October 2007

BH Photo #112479

Street Views 


The street view is of the Ludington, Michigan dock. The SS Badger is straight ahead in her slip. The car ferry to the left in the street view is the SS Spartan. These are the last extant vessels of the once large car ferry fleet of the Pere Marquette and Chessie System.

Lake Michigan Car Ferry Service 

Written by J.R. Manning

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." She and her son did set out in her automobile, on quite an expedition.

But the railroad was still king of transportation. 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.

Detroit River Car Ferries photo 112482-M_zpsuxvil0l0.jpg

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 Spartan remains unused, tied up in the Ludington harbor. 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. 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.

Updated February 27, 2009.


Ferry across Lake Michigan on US-10
Ludington, Manitowoc County, Wisconsin, and Mason County, Michigan
Operates daily May through October, 2 crossings Spring & Fall, 4 crossings in Summer
Built in 1952 by Christy Corporation of Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, Put into service 1953
- Chesapeake & Ohio Railway (C&O; CO)
Designed by Naval Architect R.A. Stearn Inc. in Sturgeon Bay, WI.
Ferry - Wisconsin Official Historic Site, Michigan Official Historic Site, Michigan Centennial Business and the Badger's propulsion system has been designated a mechanical engineering landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.
Total length: 410.5 ft.
Deck width: 59.5 ft.
Posted to the National Register of Historic Places on December 11, 2009
Approximate latitude, longitude
+44.09100, -87.65090   (decimal degrees)
44°05'28" N, 87°39'03" W   (degrees°minutes'seconds")
Approximate UTM coordinates
16/447894/4882186 (zone/easting/northing)
Quadrangle map:
Inventory numbers
NRHP 09000679 (National Register of Historic Places reference number)
BH 36321 (Bridgehunter.com ID)

Update Log 

  • March 9, 2022: New Street View added by Roger Deschner
  • March 9, 2022: New photo from Geoff Hubbs
  • May 18, 2014: New photos from Steve Conro
  • March 15, 2010: Updated by J.R. Manning: Added Street View of the Ludington, Michigan dock
  • March 14, 2010: Updated by J.R. Manning: Well, I tried to add the Ludington view but google maps doesn't like it. :(
  • February 15, 2010: Updated by J.R. Manning: Added GPS Coordinates per To-Do List
  • December 18, 2009: Posted to National Register of Historic Places
  • November 16, 2009: New photos from J.R. Manning
  • April 13, 2008: Updated by J.R. Manning: Updated municipality
  • March 9, 2008: Clarified that ferry travels to Mason County, Michigan
  • March 2, 2008: Updated by J.R. Manning: Added historical data and corrected error in schedule listing.
  • February 29, 2008: New photos from J.R. Manning
  • February 26, 2008: Essay added by J.R. Manning



SS Badger, Lake Michigan Carferry Service
Posted October 14, 2013, by Nathan Holth (form3 [at] historicbridges [dot] org)

Nice photo gallery with excellent descriptions. However, one item seems to be overlooked... detail photos and descriptions of the impressive RIVETED and COUNTERWEIGHTED structures which appear to operate the ramp system. These items will be of great interest to anyone with an interest in bridge-like structures. Here are a couple photos I found. View in original size to see the details including rivets, countwerweights, and trunnions.



SS Badger, Lake Michigan Carferry Service
Posted October 12, 2013, by J.R. Manning (thekitchenguy [at] sbcglobal [dot] net)

According to the Detroit Free Press, it appears the car ferry SS Badger will continue to ply Lake Michigan between Manitowoc and Ludington. The Badger is the last operational car ferry of the once enormous fleet of railroad ferries, and the last coal-fired cargo vessel on the lakes.

And therein lies her problem. The SS Badger has been on the endangered species list since 2008, when the Environmental Protection Agency leveled the ship into its crosshairs. Coal-fired vessels disposed of coal ash by mixing it with water and pouring it overboard. The Badger is no different, and has been disposing of coal ash into the lake since it was built in 1953. The EPA claims the coal ash is a pollutant and ordered the dumping stopped in 2008. The operators were given until 2012 to stop dumping or cease operations. The legal battle has continued ever since.

On October 10, 2013, U.S. District Judge Janet Neff approved a revised deal between the EPA and Lake Michigan Carferry, parent company of the S.S. Badger.

The agreement allows the Badger to continue operations while modifications are made to the ship. The deal calls for a reduction in the amount of ash discharged during the 2014 sailing season and by the start of the 2015 season, the Badger will have to store coal ash on board for later disposal on shore.

With this ruling, it appears the Queen of the Great Lakes Car Ferries (and the last of her breed still sailing) will continue to be an operational historical landmark.

SS Badger, Ho scale model ( SS Badger Display)
Posted July 31, 2010, by Roger Taylor (railroadrat [at] gmail [dot] com)

J.R. Manning

The model of the SS Badger was built by Gary Lester and is displayed by SS Badger Display (Skip Riley- owner Roger Taylor, I maintain, make arrangements for shows etc. Ron Colson and Sandy Hook.

The model was built about 14 years ago as a part of Gary's layout. When Gary's layout came down Skip bought the model and have continued to display it around the Midwest at train shows and other places of interest.

Next time you see us ,we will have our new modules on display.

Thanks for posting the pictures of our model. Stop by and say Hello next time Thanks Roger Taylor

SS Badger, Lake Michigan Carferry Service
Posted November 18, 2009, by J.R. Manning (thekitchenguy [at] sbcglobal [dot] net)

No, the model is privately owned. No one I spoke with would really say much about it, but the story I got at Trainfest was that it was built by someone who was a fan of the Great Lakes car ferries and built it out of admiration. The builder never displayed it, so he gave it up to a loose-knit "club" (for lack of a better term) that displays it a few times a year, mostly at events like Trainfest.

By the way, (COMPLETELY off topic) one booth over, there was an amazing display of models of the ore docks in Superior, Wisconsin, including the huge loader/unloaders. Two of the three displays featured the SS Edmund Fitzgerald, which sank mysterioiusly on November 10, 1975. (The sinking of the "Fitz" is the subject of a haunting song by Gordon Lightfoot.)

SS Badger, Lake Michigan Carferry Service
Posted November 17, 2009, by Robert Thompson (rkt [dot] engineering [at] gmail [dot] com)

That is an amazing model. Is it at the Manitowoc Maritime Museum?

SS Badger, Lake Michigan Carferry Service
Posted November 16, 2009, by Robert Thompson


I hope you don't mind that I added the designer - R.A. Stearn - to the listing on the Badger and Spartan.

A few comments:

I got to know Charles Conrad after he bought the Badger and the Spartan; we was a good guy. The company had been strangling from lack of revenue as a rail ferry; Charles marketed it as a passenger operation and turned things around. Changing the point of departure in Wisconsin from Kewaunee (a nice little town, but nothing there) to Manitowoc was one of the best decisions made.

Mention is made of the auto ramps to get cars to the upper deck of the vessels. These were built in 1955. Yhe CITY OF MIDLAND was able to carry 50 cars up high, while the BADGER and SPARTAN could only carry 16 each. With rail cars no longer being carried, there was no incentive to put autos up in the open. Then as the passenger business improved, they decided to add a mid-deck in the empty headroom of the rail car deck to carry more autos.

We (TGMD Inc.) bid on designing the installation of the mid-deck inside the hull; Bay Engineering Inc. (the successors to R.A. Stern) actually got the job. But other than adding the mid-deck, the vessel remains essentially unchanged - still steam-powered, with coal-fired boilers, with staterooms right out of the 1950s. I encourage anyone with an interest in history to make this crossing; it will be worth it.

SS Badger, Lake Michigan Carferry Service
Posted November 16, 2009, by J.R. Manning (thekitchenguy [at] sbcglobal [dot] net)

A model of the "SS Badger" was on display in Milwaukee at Trainfest this past weekend. I took several photos of this fascinating model that clearly shows what train operations were like in the halcyon days of the Great Lakes car ferries.