Access to eastern markets in the 1890s by railroads from Wisconsin and the upper Midwest triggered the growth of car ferries. A more direct route across Lake Michigan was faster and less expensive than traveling south around the southern end of the lake. Boxcars were loaded directly onto the ferries (railroad tracks are still in place on the Badger). An article in Anchor News estimates that without the ferry system, trains traveling from Manitowoc, Wis., to Detroit would have had to travel an extra 240 miles. In the 1930s, the Pere Marquette Railway Co. had a fleet of nine car ferries operating from Ludington’s port in Michigan. The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad commissioned the building of the S.S. Badger and its sister ship, the S.S. Spartan, for $10 million in 1952. They were the largest ferries ever to cross Lake Michigan.
Below the main deck, descending a steep staircase into the belly of the boat, under the waiting cars, turbine towers and idling semis, is the hot, beating heart of the Badger — the noisy and claustrophobic engine room. About 50 tons of Kentucky coal are burned in four Foster-Wheeler “D-type” coal-burning boilers every day during the car ferry’s approximately 490 crossings every year. Two 3,500-horsepower Skinner Unaflow four-cylinder steam engines power the vessel. Each of the two 13-by-10-foot propellers weighs 13,800 pounds. The two anchors weigh 7,000 pounds apiece.
Above the noise, chief engineer Bill Kulka shouts, “We could light up a small town. We have a lot of power.
“The engines are virtually trouble-free. They don’t screw up very often. Big stuff generally doesn’t break. [It’s] mostly little things, like a circuit breaker, and we have spare parts for everything important that we get from the Spartan. The boat can run on one engine, but it doesn’t like it. It’s really hard to make it die.”