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It is always exciting when the S.S. Badger car ferry docks in Manitowoc, but this year marks a special occasion as the ferry will begin using an ash conveyor system that will keep it from discharging coal ash into Lake Michigan.

While the car ferry has seen updates, the Badger has been a fixture of our lakeshore community for over 60 years.

Lake Michigan car ferry service began in 1892 when the Ann Arbor Railroad Co. brought together ferries to transport railroad cars.

Soon after, the Pere Marquette Railroad followed suit from Ludington, Michigan with the S.S. Pere Marquette. Ports lined the lake in Sturgeon Bay, Kewaunee, Manitowoc and Milwaukee and connected to Ludington, Ann Arbor and various other Michigan communities.

The S.S. Badger, and her twin, the Spartan, were built at the Christy Corp. in Sturgeon Bay for what was known as the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad Co. Launched on Sept. 6, 1952, the Badger went into service following sea trials in 1953.

The 1970s proved that all-rail routes no longer made financial sense for the car ferries and the Badger saw reduced service.

The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad sold its car ferries to investors in Ludington in 1983, and there was a great fear that landmark car ferries would no longer travel Lake Michigan.

The Badger sailed from Wisconsin to Ludington for what many believed was the last time on Nov. 16, 1990. Shortly after, owner Glen Bowden went bankrupt.

As we know today, that was not the end of the S.S. Badger’s story. A short two years later, Charles Conrad, a retired Michigan industrialist, had a dream to bring the car ferry back into service.

He invested more than $1.5 million to make his dream a reality. The Lake Michigan Car Ferry Service Inc. brought new life to the Badger and re-established a route from Ludington to Manitowoc.

Aimed at tourism, the Badger no longer featured space for freight-rail cars, but since its rebirth, the Badger has taken thousands across Lake Michigan, as it will continue to do this season.

On May 16, 1992, the S.S. Badger was officially brought back into service after a two-year absence.

In an article from the Herald Times Reporter on May 17, 1992, it states, “Even the fact that the Badger arrived 30 minutes late in Manitowoc didn’t seem to displease passengers.” The late timing was a result of a postponed departure in Ludington.

It was reported in the May 17 article that the maiden trip had 260 guests aboard the Badger when it docked in Manitowoc. A large crowd was at the car ferry dock to welcome the ship, and after the passengers departed, the vessel hosted a two-hour tour for people to experience the new ferry.

Miss Wisconsin 1992 was in town for the festivities and said the car ferry service between Ludington and Manitowoc was a “fabulous opportunity, not just for travelers, but for people who don’t realize what Wisconsin has to offer in scenery, tourism, and people.”

Welcome back S.S. Badger.

Amy Meyer is the executive director of the Manitowoc County Historical Society.

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