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Last coal-fired ferry has a yesterday, today, tomorrow

Jan 23, 2014 02:21 PM
SS Badger, the last coal-fueled ferry on the Great Lakes, approaches its terminal in Manitowoc, Wis. The former rail-car ferry carries as many as 180 automobiles and 620 passengers on its twice-daily round-trips across Lake Michigan.

Photos by Brian Gauvin

SS Badger, the last coal-fueled ferry on the Great Lakes, approaches its terminal in Manitowoc, Wis. The former rail-car ferry carries as many as 180 automobiles and 620 passengers on its twice-daily round-trips across Lake Michigan.

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Coal passers have shoveled the black fuel into the stoker. A pair of Skinner Unaflow steam engines are churning at 95 rpm. The captain knows he’ll be pivoting off the anchor when it’s time to dock.

This moment in the life of a Great Lakes car ferry may seem to hearken to an earlier century — a long-lost era when America’s waterways teemed with steamships moving passengers and freight. This, however, is 2013, aboard SS Badger, the last coal-powered ferry still operating on the lakes.

The 411-foot Badger, a regional icon in its 60th year of service, still provides a vital link between Ludington, Mich., and Manitowoc, Wis. The four-hour crossing cuts travel time almost in half, compared with driving around Lake Michigan through Chicago.

Badger is an old-style “bell boat,” and Capt. Jeff Curtis still uses the wheelhouse’s engine-order telegraph to communicate commands to the engine room.

At the helm of the old-style bell boat is Capt. Jeff Curtis, a former Great Lakes pilot who guides an eastbound August voyage out of Manitowoc. Curtis uses the engine-order telegraph — with its distinct combination of rings — to notify the engineers of the speed and direction he intends. When it’s time to land in Ludington, there are no bow thrusters or azipods to aid in the approach.

“I really enjoy the vessel. It’s unique. It’s ship-handling like the 1950s railroad car ferries, so it’s very different,” Curtis said. “This vessel has no bow thruster, and in this day and age you usually use a bow thruster or a tug. We use neither. We use the anchor.”

Operated by Lake Michigan Carferry Service, Badger steams across Lake Michigan at about 13.5 knots. Upon approach to the Ludington breakwater, the officers check for the landmarks they use to stay on the optimal track line.

“On the marshmallow!” is the cry as the ferry aims at a water tower, formerly nicknamed “blueberry” before it was painted white. The 4,244-gross-ton behemoth slows to less than 10 knots. Then it’s three blasts of the horn and a “half ahead” order.

When Badger eases past a condominium parking lot, Curtis achieves a hard turn to starboard with a “slow ahead” order on the 14-foot, four-blade port-side propeller and “slow astern” on the starboard prop. He drops the starboard anchor, which is always used in the maneuver and is particularly crucial in windy conditions.

Passengers gather on Badger’s bow to enjoy the sunset as the ferry departs Ludington, Mich., via the Pere Marquette River. Ludington Light is on the north breakwater, where the open waters of Lake Michigan await.

“You release the wheelsman from up here to go back and tie up the stern and then you just use the engines. You move the vessel around just using the propeller,” Curtis said. “These techniques are not used a lot anymore. But they’re our bread and butter. ... We drop the anchor and we start pivoting on the anchor. After I get the anchor down, I leave there and I walk to the aft pilothouse, and this happens on no other vessel that I know of.”

While the boat is turning clockwise, Curtis promptly exits the pilothouse and walks briskly all the way back to the stern pilot station to finish the docking by backing the ferry into the berth, with heaving line over, easing into the notches.

At Ludington, the pivot is 230 degrees on the starboard anchor. At Manitowoc, the turn is just 90 degrees on the port anchor.

Down in the engine room of Badger, Chief Engineer William Kulka is surrounded by old reliable machinery that they just don’t make anymore but is still getting the job done. Kulka was delighted when a visitor asked how much of the equipment is original to the vessel.

“Everything!” he said. “A few fluorescent lights have been added, but all the machinery and pumps are original. It’s 1953 when you step down here. We’re the last big coal burner in the U.S.”

Old to new | New to old
Oct 11, 2014 09:22 pm
 Posted by  Tosatown

This article is wonderful. More Wisconsinite's should be able to read it. I will try to pass it around.

Apr 16, 2015 05:15 pm
 Posted by  mariners

Great article. Coal is a natural product of nature that has become the scapegoat of environmentalists who won their fortunes by investing in China's coal-powered industries. Considering the huge environmental advantages of shipping by way of our waterways, the U.S. should invest in more vessels powered by American fuels.

Feb 5, 2020 04:32 pm
 Posted by  the_frumious_bandersnatch

Excellent article. The author is a talented writer. Rode her from Manitowoc to Ludington with a midnight departure one night in the summer of '92. There were still rails in her main car deck. Showed my Z-card to the 1st assistant engineer and got a bonus tour down below! It was satisfying to see those old Unaflows chugging along, just as in days gone by. Hope she'll still be gliding across Lake Michigan for years to come. Much as I like big marine diesels, it would be a shame to see SS Badger permanently laid up or her engines replaced.

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