S.S. Badger thrives on unique cargo
When Doug Stangel needed to transport a llama from Manitowoc to Michigan, he bought it a passenger ticket on the S.S. Badger car ferry.
Omar the llama didn't play a game of bingo or take in the Lake Michigan view from the outdoor deck, but he was waited on hand and foot by staff members. Stangel and his wife stayed with Omar, who was tied up on the car deck, rather than pay an additional fee to bring aboard a trailer they didn't need.
"We could have driven him home, but obviously the Badger was a lot quicker," Stangel said of the four-hour crossing. "It was really kind of comical because people who worked in the kitchen started bringing down lettuce for him. At that time, llamas were pretty rare, so people were always sticking their heads around trying to see him. (Staff members) were so accommodating, it was unreal."
Though that trip was more than a few years ago, Badger officials say they still are just as accommodating with unique requests during the approximately 450 crossings in a five-month season.
"I always think it’s kind of interesting when you look back on the history of the stuff that we carried on the Badger. We’ve carried it all," said Bob Manglitz, president and CEO of Lake Michigan Carferry, owner of the Badger. "We did carry a circus. We carried the major component of the Hubble Telescope."
Patrick McCarthy, LMC vice president of shore operations, said loading the circus more than 15 years ago was, well, a bit of a circus trying to fit everything on the 410-foot ship.
"It had a variety of animals — bears, some zebras and some camels," he said. "To get it all on one ferry load was a pretty major event for us. It took a lot of planning."
The last remaining coal-fired steamship in the country — which was recently designated a National Historic Landmark — launched in 1953 to carry railcars across the lake. When that business slowed, the Badger was transformed into a seasonal vessel for passengers, their vehicles and their cargo.
"Our heritage is transportation," said Don Clingan, LMC executive vice president. "It’s so important to all of the people who work at the Badger … that we remain committed to transportation. And transportation requires a great variety of flexibility in order to meet that challenge. We try to maintain that."
The Badger has carried everything from giraffes, elephants and pigs to planes, trains and automobiles.
Last summer, the Badger transported a group of 13 original Shelby Cobras — rare cars worth upwards of $1 million apiece — and their drivers, who annually take a scenic road trip through different parts of the country.
"I decided to take the Badger because it was more in keeping with our vintage cars than the more modern ferry out of Milwaukee," said North Carolina resident Tom Cotter, organizer of the group's tour around Lake Michigan. "The event was designed so we could all step back in time and ... the Badger was the ideal vehicle."
Other notable cargo includes the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile, Budweiser Clydesdale horses, wind tower sections from Broadwind Towers, military vehicles used for National Guard training, an annual vintage tractor show and even a houseboat.
The Badger also moved parts of a concrete processing facility, which, including the truck and trailer, weighed more than 600,000 pounds.
"That really speaks to variety and diversity of service the Badger offers," McCarthy said. "When we were moving (the wind towers) at a really high volume in 2012 and 2013, I heard on a regular basis people saying, 'Oh my gosh, I had no idea that it could do this.' I remember someone saying, 'Boy won't that make it sink?' Even the weight and size of things we move nowadays does not come close to ... the days when the Badger was hauling 35 loaded railcars."
The only items not allowed are potentially hazardous materials.
"Other than that, if it's not dangerous to people and not dangerous to the lake, and we can get it onto the ship, then we'll get it across," McCarthy said.
Animals are placed far away from the engines and boilers so they don't get too warm. Passengers with uncommon cargo make reservations in advance and Badger staff work to fulfill any special needs.
"I worked with Badger management months ahead of time so the owners could drive their own cars on board instead of ferry personnel," Cotter said. "They were terrifically accommodating. They even invited us to tour the engine room, knowing we would probably enjoy seeing the vintage power plant."
The Weinermobile was another vehicle driven on board by its own driver. McCarthy says sometimes it's impractical for staff to operate an unfamiliar vehicle, and other times the owners want control over their vehicle because of value or sentimental reasons.
McCarthy, who is in his 18th season with the Badger, fondly remembers a group of about 400 motorcycle riders taking the ship on their way to a 100-year anniversary rally for Harley-Davidson.
"As (the owners) started to fire their bikes up to drive off the ship, it really gave a new meaning to ... 'Rolling Thunder' because all those Harleys inside the confined space of the ship really just created this amazing sound," he said.
Each season typically has one or two things staff have never seen before. Though loading the Badger — whether with Mustangs or quarter horses — is practically down to a science.
"It's sort of like a jigsaw puzzle," McCarthy said, "where you get a new set of pieces every day."
Reach Sarah Kloepping at 920-686-2105 or firstname.lastname@example.org.