The 'Badger' still feels like the C&O

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, March 26, 2020

Chesapeake & Ohio's Badger hits the water for the first time on September 6, 1952, as her slightly older identical twin, the Spartan, stands in the background. C&O
Some idle time online earlier this week (aren’t a lot of us doing that these days?) led me to a historical tidbit that caught my attention, thanks to the Wisconsin Marine Historical Society. Last Saturday, March 21, was the 67th anniversary of the day the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway put the carferry Badger into cross-Lake Michigan service. The boat began its career with a departure from Manitowoc, Wis., carrying 32 boxcars loaded with paper from Fox Valley mills. 

Sixty-seven years! How many North American transport conveyances in regularly scheduled common carriage can boast of such long service? I can think one of that comes close, VIA’s Canadian, whose dome-studded, Budd-built fleet began regular service in 1955. But the Badger might be the oldest, at least in North America. 

The Badger is a freak, and a wonderful one at that, having survived temporary abandonment by C&O successor Chessie System in 1983, the failure of a second operator in 1990, and, five years ago, a momentary embargo while today’s owners refitted the steamer with ash-retention equipment. She’s a survivor, the last coal-fired vessel on the Great Lakes and declared a National Historic Landmark in 2016. 

The current owners are Lake Michigan Carferry Service, based in Ludington, Mich. They’re scheduled to reopen seasonal service on May 29, barring any delay on account of the coronavirus emergency.

Soon after the Badger entered service on March 21, 1953, she and the Spartan steam side by side for a publicity photo. C&O
Those of you who don’t live on or near the Great Lakes might wonder why I’d be writing about a 67-year-old steamship on the Classic Trains website, but the truth is that railroads and Lake Michigan share a symbiotic and altogether captivating legacy. For decades, the carferries of the Pere Marquette (later C&O), the Ann Arbor, and Grand Trunk Western hauled prodigious amounts of railroad cars as traffic managers sought a faster way around the perennial bottleneck of Chicago.

Several ports on the west coast of Michigan owed much of their prosperity to all that commerce at water’s edge, including Ludington with its big C&O terminal, Muskegon with GTW, and Elberta (Frankfort) with the Ann Arbor, which, it can be argued, never could have existed outside the cross-lake service. Some Ann Arbor freight trains out of Toledo were scheduled to match the sailings in Elberta.

Of all the ferries, the C&O’s Badger and its sister boat, the Spartan, were the monarchs of the lakes. Built by Christy Corporation in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., the Spartan, named for the Michigan State University mascot, was launched first in January 1952. The Badger, honoring the University of Wisconsin, entered the water the following September. Both were immense by Great Lakes carferry standards: 410 feet long, with a 60-foot beam, designed for year-round operation, even in ice. Each could carry 32 railroad cars or 150 automobiles. Passenger accommodations included 60 staterooms, a lounge, a promenade on the cabin deck, and a dining room with seating for 52.

The Badger approaches Milwaukee's inner harbor from a vantage point on the city's Hoan Bridge in the early 1980s. Milwaukee Sentinel: Karen Sherlock
Below decks was a pair of Skinner Marine Unaflow four-cylinder compound steam engines, each set fed by four Foster-Wheeler water-tube boilers operating at 470 psi and fueled by coal. These 7,000 h.p. engines allowed the Badger and Spartan to achieve a maximum speed of 21 knots, with an average cruising speed of 16 knots. The Badger’s engines are still at it. 

That comparatively fast speed across Lake Michigan was exhilarating. I know, because since August 1974 I’ve made the crossing probably two dozen times, including several trips in the last years of Chessie System operations, especially out of Milwaukee, which saw its last departure in 1983. To me, the Milwaukee–Ludington run seemed just about perfect: six hours, enough time to make it really feel like a voyage.

Even better, six hours gave you a chance to make the best use of a stateroom. The midnight sailing out of Milwaukee allowed a few hours of sleep and, with the time change, have enough time for a quick breakfast before landing in Ludington at 7 a.m. Today’s four-hour night-time crossing from Manitowoc is less civilized. 

Looking back on those early trips out of Milwaukee conjures a flood of memories: the strangeness of witnessing a C&O switcher shuffling boxcars at the dock on Jones Island, far from home rails; the way the waiting room looked and smelled like a railroad station, until you went outside and saw what awaited you; climbing up the stairs to the purser’s office, where a smartly uniformed mariner would hand you a ponderous brass key for your stateroom; the unmistakable “railroad feel” of the stateroom itself, with its Pullman-style blankets and fittings; the sublime Lake Michigan breeze wafting through your cabin window in the middle of the night, occasionally accompanied by a whiff of coal smoke.

Midway across Lake Michigan, coal smoke wafts from the Badger's funnel, lettered for current operator Lake Michigan Carferry, in 1998. Robert S. McGonigal
Most of all, I loved the fact that all this was being provided by a railroad. There were C&O and Chessie documents and posters displayed throughout the ship’s corridors. High above the superstructure, the Chessie kitten looked down from the funnel. If you were lucky enough to ride Chessie’s third boat, the 1941 City of Midland 41 (which I did, twice), you could walk across a huge blue-and-yellow C&O logo, cut into the linoleum at the bottom of the dining-room staircase. Best of all was the unique experience of train-watching in port from the upper deck, feeling the boat list and groan slightly as each freight car was pushed past the sea gate.

You can relive those glory days in two terrific books: George W. Hilton’s The Great Lakes Car Ferries (Howell-North, 1962, subsequently republished), and Karl Zimmermann’s Lake Michigan’s Railroad Car Ferries (Andover Junction, 1993, subsequently republished).

While the railroad part of the experience is long gone — the terminals at Kewaunee, Manitowoc, and Ludington don’t betray much of their railroad roots unless you know what you’re looking for — a ride on the Badger is still something for your bucket list. The boat looks substantially like it did back in 1953, and although its belly is full of autos and SUVs instead of boxcars and gondolas, the crew carries on its duties in time-honored fashion. As George Hilton wrote, the elegant old boat is a “memorial of the old days when the C&O was blue chip, wedded to coal, and not given to worries over minute items of cost.”

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