As it prepares to embark on its 65th season, the S.S. Badger has ferried generations of travelers between its ports in Manitowoc and Ludington, Mich.
That connection, and a desire to ride aboard a National Historic Landmark, is part of what keeps people coming back, says Terri Brown, director of marketing and media relations for the S.S. Badger. With more than six decades of ferrying to its name, she says people pass down stories of the S.S. Badger, making families want to enjoy the same experience.
The vessel, the largest coal-fired passenger ship still operating in the United States, carries on a tradition by blending the nostalgic with modern equipment. In response to concerns about dumping waste coal ash into Lake Michigan, the ship, which began sailing in 1953, was retrofitted in 2015 to capture that ash, save it and recycle it to be made into concrete.
Brown says people go out of their way and come from all over the country, from New York to California, to discover the Upper Midwest via a car ferry. “The Badger is kind of a bridge between the two states (Wisconsin and Michigan) connecting all these travelers,” she says.
The Badger, which is owned by the Lake Michigan Car Ferry, has transported more than 3 million people since 1992. While it gives riders, including the members of many car and motor clubs, a way to avoid Chicago traffic congestion, the 410-foot ship also offers a uniquely fun experience, Brown says. Passengers can enjoy live entertainment, movies, television and free Badger bingo.
Manitowoc Mayor Justin Nickel, whose city is in the process of developing a downtown master plan, says the Badger plays a key role in the community’s revitalization efforts. With around 100,000 passengers coming off the ship each year, the city can capitalize on that traffic by cultivating an inviting central city, he says.
The S.S. Badger departs Manitowoc once daily, at 2 p.m., beginning May 11, and twice daily, at 2 p.m. and 1:30 a.m., from June 15 to Sept. 3.