The SS Badger is a coal-fired passenger and vehicle ferry in the United States that has been in Lake Michigan service from 1953 until the present. Currently, she shuttles between Ludington, Michigan, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin. She is the last coal-fired passenger vessel operating on the Great Lakes.

The boat is named after the University of Wisconsin’s athletic mascot, “Bucky Badger”. The Badger runs on Michigan time (Eastern Time Zone, whereas Wisconsin is in the Central Time Zone) and riders pay Michigan taxes on their fares.

On 1 July 1983, the Chessie System ended its car ferry service when it sold the steamers Badger, Spartan, and City of Midland 41 to Glen F. Bowden of Ludington. He organized the Michigan-Wisconsin Transportation Company (MWT) to continue the operation.

The railroad car ferry concept on Lake Michigan was facing serious economic troubles during the 1980s and by November 1988, the Badger was the only vessel running. She was the last of the 14 ferries since 1897 based in Ludington remaining in service. On November 16 1990, facing bankruptcy, Bowden laid up the Badger, ending 93 years of railway car ferry service out of Ludington and 98 years on Lake Michigan as a whole.

After sitting idle for a year, the three ferries were purchased by entrepreneur and philanthropist Charles F. Conrad of Holland, Michigan, (and a native of Ludington). He undertook a major overhaul and refit of the Badger exclusively for carrying passengers and automobiles. Returning to service May 16 1992, on the Ludington–Manitowoc route, the vessel has carried hundreds of thousands of passengers and vehicles across the lake. She is the only operating ferry of her kind in the world and is an icon of car ferry heritage on the Great Lakes. Conrad retired as president of Lake Michigan Carferry Service in 1993. He died on February 9 1995. Since 1993 the company has been headed by his son-in-law, Robert Manglitz

.The Badger is the last large coal burning steamship in the United States and is one of the last vessels in service on the Great Lakes to be powered by Skinner Unaflow engines (manufactured by the Skinner Company of Erie, Pennsylvania). The Badger docks 490 times a year on her schedule as of 2009, an exceptionally large number of dockings for a merchant vessel.

On average, the Badger completes a trip across Lake Michigan in about four hours, covering 60 miles. The ferry saves about three and a half hours of travel time (and the frustration of congested highways) compared to the 411-mile drive from Manitowoc to Ludington via Chicago. The ferry offers a number of entertainment options and eating facilities on board, as well as passenger staterooms equipped with sleeping berths. When Darlene and I use this service we always opt for a stateroom for a measure of privacy. Because of her size and strong construction the SS Badger rarely misses a sailing because of weather related delays.

The SS Badger is also unusual in that it is a registered historical site in two states. The Michigan Historical Commission and the Wisconsin Historical commission each named the Badger as a registered historical site in 1997. She was listed as of national significance on the National Register of Historic Places on December 11 2009.  Part Two comes your way tomorrow.