Ride aboard SS Badger a throwback to bygone era | Making Manitowoc
The S.S. Badger provides more than a convenient way for people to travel across Lake Michigan. The National Historic Landmark has been crossing the lake for more than 60 years providing unique experiences and scenic views for passengers. Josh Clark/USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
MANITOWOC - Stepping up to the S.S. Badger, one is first struck by its size.
Families boarding the 1953 water vessel, which will take them on a slow, four-hour journey across Lake Michigan from Manitowoc, a small city in Wisconsin, to Ludington, a small city in Michigan, say they expected a modest car ferry, not a ship more than 400 feet long, able to carry up to 600 passengers and 180 vehicles.
“I was worried the boat might get a hole and we might sink,” said wide-eyed 6-year-old Cade Schleis, from the Luxemburg area, who was traveling with his grandparents Dale and Pat Jandrain to visit family in Michigan. “I’m excited to see it’s a big boat."
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The little boy’s fear soon gave way to curiosity, and his grandmother said he had countless questions about the steel used to make the ship and ship operations.
“I like the part where we took off,” Schleis said. “And I like looking out the back of the boat.”
'Queen of the Lakes'
This solid ship has not changed much in 60 years, when it was built by by the Christy Corporation of Sturgeon Bay for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway (C & O) to carry railroad freight cars across the waters, and also to provide superior passenger accommodations.
Today, the ship, which still runs on coal and steam, carries thousands of passengers back and forth. The Badger also has carried semi-trucks, loads of classic cars for shows, parts for industrial machines and large windmills, Amish horse buggies, and even the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile.
“The ship was built to rival the ocean liners of the time,” said Senior Capt. Jeffrey Curtis, who came aboard in 2012. "The passenger cabins remind you of rail-car rooms. Back in the day, you’d see a waiter with a towel on his arm. It’s a throwback to a different time, to a bygone era.”
The Badger was dubbed “Queen of Lakes” during the heyday of car ferries back in the late 1950s, with Manitowoc, Milwaukee and Kewaunee as her main ports of call. Car ferry popularity dwindled in the 1970s as railroad economics changed, and the ship docked for the last time in 1990.
But in 1991, entrepreneur Charles Conrad invested his own funds to reinvent the Badger to carry leisure passengers. The Badger was placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 2009 and was named a National Historic Landmark in 2016.
Mini cruise for business, leisure
As USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin photographer Josh Clark and I embarked on our own journey across Lake Michigan from Manitowoc to Ludington on a recent sunny weekend in late June, Conrad's idea seemed a hit for the lines of smiling passengers waiting to have their cars checked in and maneuvered into the bowels of the Badger before climbing the metal steps onto the ship.
Those lines of smiling passengers included couples planning a relaxing long weekend, grandparents and excited grandkids, and motorcycle crews planning to take a long ride around the lake once they reached the western shore.
“Passengers are a mix of business travel and leisure, and we get people from every state,” said Terri Brown, director of marketing and media relations for Lake Michigan Car Ferry LLC, which owns the S.S. Badger. “They see it as sort of a mini cruise.”
The ship carries thousands of visitors between Wisconsin and Michigan from mid-May to mid-October. Many will travel from one side to the other to spend a vacation in the other state before returning home, while others buy a one-way ticket, seeing the trip as more fun, relaxing and faster than driving through heavy Chicago traffic to get around the lake.
One of the first things that surprise travelers, Brown said, is their ticket doesn’t buy them a reserved seat on the boat.
“They think it’s going to be like an airplane where you are assigned a seat and have to stay there,” she said. “They’re surprised there’s so much to do.”
Instead, passengers are encouraged to wander the Badger, to nibble at a buffet breakfast or lunch, or enjoy a cocktail at the bar. They can wander most areas of the boat, from multiple viewing decks to a gift shop, children’s play room, and TV and movie-viewing areas. There’s even a friendly cruise director to answer questions or offer suggestions of fun things to do, and a large commons space filled with tables, where guests can play a popular game of Badger Bingo or listen to live music.
“I think the really exciting thing is everyone is here to have a good time,” said cruise director and director of customer service Megan Maltbie, who’s been with the Badger for 13 years. “You want to make a unique experience. They’re usually here as part of a vacation or traveling somewhere, and they really want to enjoy themselves. It’s fun to be part of their vacation and to make their time maybe even more special than they originally anticipated.”
So what does a cruise director do for a four-hour experience? They mostly answer questions, provide information, suggest things to do in Manitowoc or Ludington, and make sure everyone has a safe trip, she said.
“When people hear the trip is four hours, they think, ‘Boy, that seems like a long time,’” Brown said. “But we give them plenty to do. That time goes by really quickly.”
And indeed time does fly.
Cell phones not needed
Beginning our late-June journey aboard the Badger, photographer Josh and I leaned against an open rail as the vessel slowly pulled out of Manitowoc. And as passengers do, we raised our hands to clusters of people waving from the dock.
We watched as land disappeared and the water turned a pretty, clear turquoise blue. We marveled that folks wandering the deck or lounging on deck chairs on the boat’s bow had their cell phones tucked away and were talking — face-to-face talking — with their friends and loved ones as they looked out on the water.
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And nothing says a good work gig like looking out on crisp waters and working on a computer while listening to a polka with a bit of the Gilligan’s Island theme song thrown in.
“That’s fun for us to see,” Brown said. “People are busy. It’s a fun time for families to travel together without their cell phones.”
No cell phones were in sight as Richard and Denise Hewer entertained the youngest five of 17 grandchildren, ages 8 and younger, on the Friday evening of our journey.
These ambitious grandparents plan an annual Grand Camp each year, dividing kiddos into three groups by age and hosting three separate adventures. And they do a special trip with two autistic grandchildren.
This time around, the couple was traveling with the “littles.”
Grand Camp includes special T-shirts and hoodies, and a theme. This year’s theme, “United We Stand,” had a patriotic twist.
“Every year we do a different place, we want to create a unique experience for them to remember,” Richard Hewer said. “We thought coming on the S.S. Badger would be another unique experience and a good place for them to remember forever.”
Doug Pankow, from Freemont, relaxed on an upper deck of the ship with four friends. They planned to travel by motorcycle around Michigan.
“We have never been on the S.S. Badger before,” Pankow said. “We’ve cruised all around the Midwest, and we wanted to check this out. We plan to go from Wisconsin to Michigan, and then go up the lakeshore, go across the bridge and across the (Upper Peninsula) before heading home.”
The crew planned to spend the night in Ludington before heading out. A trip on the S.S. Badger was a sweet alternative to driving through heavy Illinois traffic, Pankow said.
“We are totally impressed so far,” he said. “It’s been a beautiful day. It’s a nice cruise on the ship. The weather is great, not too hot, there’s a nice breeze, and we have cold beverages. Everything’s great.”
Landing in Ludington
On this beautiful day, many passengers chose, as did Pankow and his friends, to walk around the decks. Some, though, snoozed quietly on deck chairs or inside theater seats.
But as the S.S. Badger pulled into the Ludington port, most travelers perked up and watched as the ship moved slowly to shore.
As in Manitowoc, clusters of people stood on shore to greet friends and family, or even strangers, as they arrived.
The crew worked efficiently to remove vehicles from the boat and connect them to their people. From there, passengers were free to drive to the city’s nearby downtown or wander to several beaches and parks adjacent to the dock and marina.
One of the first things to see is the new Port of Ludington Maritime Museum. The museum is a tribute to the city’s connection to the water, but the museum only has daytime hours, so get there early.
Nearby, you’ll see bronze statues at the Waterfront Sculpture Park and Playground. Once the site of an aging factory, the park now hosts a variety of community events, including Thursday evening bonfires.
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Kathy Maclean, executive director of the Ludington Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, pulled up on a fat-tire bike to greet us. Her family owns a bike shop, and bike rentals are one of many activities to keep visitors busy.
“I think the biggest draw is our beaches,” Maclean said of Ludington. “This town really still has that maritime feel.”
Visitors should be sure to check out the nearby Stearns Park, where they can walk a short half mile to view the North Breakwater, a lighthouse with a distinct shape some say resembles a ship. The lighthouse is open for tours and tower climbs during the summer, but just walking along or fishing off the cement pier is a special experience.
Maclean also recommends a visit to Silver Lake State Park and the Little Sable Point Lighthouse, about 50 minutes outside of downtown Ludington.
“It’s just a beautiful park,” she said. “I can’t say enough about it.”
The town of 8,300 swells in the summer, she said, attracting both those who have rented old cottages for years, and newcomers staying for a long weekend. Tourism, agriculture and manufacturing are among the town’s biggest industries, she said.
A number of new restaurants and brew pubs have opened in the charming downtown, and she said summer weekends are filled with events from fishing tournaments to car shows to art fairs.
“What’s great is you don’t have to bring a car,” Maclean said. “There’s a lot to do right here. We’re really excited about the way we’re growing and things we’re seeing. It’s been very cool. We’re seeing a trend of people who grew up here, now in their 20s and 30s, having kids and coming back to be where they grew up.”
The town’s downtown, with two main drags — Ludington Avenue and James Street — is easily walkable and filled with cafés, bars, restaurants and shops. Friday night found The Mitten Bar, which sells only Michigan beer, wine and liquor, filled with the 30-and-under crowd dancing to live music.
Connecting Ludington and Manitowoc through the S.S. Badger makes sense for both communities, Maclean said.
“We want to bring people here and see all of the great things to do,” she said. “And Manitowoc wants the same. This is a great way for people to enjoy the beautiful lake and lakeshore and to experience something completely new. I think it’s great.”
This story is part of the Making Manitowoc series of stories that highlight the people, places and things that make the Manitowoc region one-of-a-kind. If you know of an interesting person, place or thing made in Manitowoc that you think could be featured, contact Patti Zarling at firstname.lastname@example.org, by phone at 920-686-2152 or on Twitter at @PGPattiZarling.
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SS Badger info
Before you go, here are a few quick facts about booking information for the S.S. Badger and a visit to Ludington, Michigan.
Cost for an adult passenger, including seniors for the 2017 season, is $59 one way or $111 round trip. Children ages 5-15 are $24 one way or $39 round trip, and younger than 5 are free. Costs to bring a vehicle are $59 one way or $118 for a round trip.
If you’re not sure when you’ll be making a return trip, you can still get the round-trip discount, and redeem the second leg of your journey at any time during the season.
For the rest of the summer season, through Sept. 10, the S.S. Badger leaves Ludington at 9 a.m., Eastern Time, and arrives in Manitowoc at noon, Central Time. The ship leaves Manitowoc at 2 p.m. Central Time and arrives in Ludington at 7 p.m. Eastern time. There also is a moonlight cruise that leaves Ludington at 9 p.m. Eastern Time and arrives in Manitowoc at midnight, Central Time, and leaves Manitowoc at 1:30 a.m. Central Time and returns to Ludington at 6:30 a.m., Eastern Time.
From Sept. 11 to Oct. 15, there is no moonlight cruise.
The ship also hosts a number of shoreline cruises, special events and specialty pricing.
Call 1-800-841-4243 for information or two make a reservation. Visit ssbadger.com for information.
Once in Michigan, Ludington offers a variety of outdoor activities, including biking, fishing, hiking, kayaking, paddle boarding and more, in addition to fun restaurants and shops.
Visit PureLudington.com or call 1-800-542-4600 for details.
Taking a trip on the S.S. Badger from Manitowoc to Ludington, Mich.? Here are five fun things to do while you're there. Wochit