A 19-year veteran of the Badger, Hobbs sips coffee while alternating between giving orders and carefully watching the open water with a confidence that comes only with experience. The number of ships on Lake Michigan and on the Great Lakes is down to 50 to 60, Hobbs says. Each of the newer 1,000-foot vessels replaced three smaller ones. This afternoon, the only ship in the vicinity is the 1,000-foot Stewart J. Cort barge, which is hauling taconite (iron ore) from the upper peninsula of Michigan to Silver Bay, Minn.
The coffee triggers another story by Hobbs — a cold-weather epiphany he had on the Illinois River in 1972 while working as a barge deckhand. “It was 10 below zero, and I was outside giving hand signals to the pilot, who was directing our course through Peoria. And he was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, drinking a cup of coffee and carrying on a casual conversation with a female cook up in the pilothouse. What hit me was that I wanted to be up there in that warm pilothouse too. By next spring, I was enrolled at the Great Lakes Maritime Academy in Traverse City, [Mich.].”
Two levels down, on the busy main deck, Gregorian chant is nowhere to be heard. Entertainment director and former Navy journalist Todd Hansen commands Badger Bingo in the lounge, much to the delight of children, who run up to Hansen to collect their prizes. Passengers are a multigenerational mix, with a sprinkle of older tourists who revel in the nostalgia of riding on the last of the coal-fired car ferries to ply the Great Lakes.
Down the narrow hallways, where passengers have to turn sideways to let other passengers pass, there is a boutique gift shop, a quiet room, a museum, movie and TV lounges, a kids’ playroom, a bar, several cafés and a video arcade that one can assume was not a feature in 1953, when the Badger first set sail. For those passengers who want a more private area, the Badger has 40 Spartan staterooms with twin beds, sinks, toilets and televisions, all trimmed with original 1950s decor. Having hardly changed in 60 years, the staterooms still open with skeleton keys — and the ship itself is a solid display of heavy metal, brass and steel, none of which were used sparingly in its construction.
Built in 1952 by the Christy Corp. in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., the Badger is the last remnant of a long history of car-ferrying on Lake Michigan that began at the end of the 19th century and peaked in 1955 (the height of the golden era), when car ferries carried 205,000 people, 204,000 freight cars and 71,000 vehicles across Lake Michigan in approximately 7,000 crossings.