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On This Day in 1953 (BADGER)

On this day (03/21) in 1953, the C&O carferry BADGER entered service. Built by the Christy Corporation in Sturgeon Bay, she would be the last Lake Michigan carferry. On her first trip, BADGER sailed from Manitowoc, Wisconsin, to Ludington, Michigan. She carried 32 railcars filled with paper from mills in the Fox River Valley. Although she no longer transports train cars, BADGER still runs between Ludington and Manitowoc carrying passengers and vehicles.

John Ashley of the Ann Arbor Railroad had an idea. Instead of transferring cargo from railcar to lake boat to railcar, he would ship loaded freight cars across Lake Michigan. On November 27, 1892, twenty-two cars were loaded at Kewaunee, Wisconsin, and ferried across the Lake to Frankfort, Michigan. This was the start of cross-lake railroad carferry service.

The Flint and Pere Marquette Railroad began its own ferry service in 1897. F&PM was one of three railroads that were combined to form the Pere Marquette Railway in 1900. This new company would operate the largest fleet of Lake Michigan carferries. Pere Marquette was absorbed into the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway in 1947. Seeking to upgrade service, C&O soon ordered two new ferries. Christy Corporation of Sturgeon Bay was given the contract.

A relative newcomer, Christy Corporation had a long pedigree. Thomas Smith and John Leathem began repairing schooners and barges at Sturgeon Bay in 1881. Smith’s son took over the business in 1921 and formed what would become the Leathem D. Smith Shipbuilding Company. After Smith died suddenly in 1946, assistant general manager C.R. Christianson formed Christy Corporation and purchased the shipbuilding business.

Christy Corp. built two carferries for C&O. Because coal was a substantial part of C&O’s business, these were coal-fired steamships. Departing from past practice, the new boats were named for university mascots instead of cities.

SPARTAN launched in January 1952 and entered service that October. BADGER was launched in September 1952 and entered service on March 21, 1953. Both vessels were 410 feet long with a 59-foot beam and designed for year-round operation. They could carry 32 railcars or 150 automobiles. Passenger accommodations included 60 staterooms, a spacious lounge, a promenade on the cabin deck, and a dining room that could seat 52.

Early on the morning of March 21, BADGER sailed from Sturgeon Bay to Manitowoc. Bouquets of crimson and white flowers, the University of Wisconsin’s colors, filled the lounge and adorned dining tables. At Manitowoc, 32 boxcars loaded with paper from mills in Appleton, Kimberly, Neenah and Kaukauna were rolled onboard. Following a cocktail party and luncheon, the BADGER departed Manitowoc at 3:30 that afternoon.

Thousands were waiting to greet the new flagship of the C&O fleet when she arrived at Ludington just after 7:00 that evening. “The crossing was perfect, the ship easily making 18 miles an hour most of the way. There was enough of a sea running to make the trip interesting.” Shortly before arriving, BADGER passed her sister ship, SPARTAN, which offered a salute. BADGER was opened for public inspection the next day. An estimated “15,000 enthusiastic persons” visited the new carferry.

C&O merged with the Baltimore and Ohio railroad in 1963 giving it direct access to Chicago. This made an all-rail route more appealing. Freight cars were also getting bigger reducing capacity on the ferries. And operating the ferries was very labor intensive. Consequently, C&O no longer wanted the boats. But the railroad could not abandon them without approval from the Interstate Commerce Commission. After lengthy proceedings, service to Milwaukee was dropped in 1980. Service to Manitowoc ended two years later. However, service between Ludington and Kewaunee had to be maintained.

In 1983, C&O sold its three remaining ferries, CITY OF MIDLAND 41, SPARTAN, and BADGER, to a newly created company, Michigan-Wisconsin Transportation. SPARTAN and BADGER were laid up the following year. CITY OF MIDLAND 41 was kept in service because she carried 50 autos on her upper deck while her newer fleet mates carried only 18. When bad boiler mounts forced CITY OF MIDLAND 41 into retirement in 1988, BADGER was returned to service. Two years later, M-WT ceased operations.

Ludington resident Charles Conrad formed Lake Michigan Carferry Service and acquired all three ferries in early 1992. That June, BADGER began sailing between Ludington and Manitowoc, but she no longer carried railcars.

From mid-May through mid-October, BADGER sails between Ludington and Manitowoc. After renovations, she now carries up to 620 passengers and 180 vehicles on each trip. She is the last coal-fired steamship working the Lakes.


When BADGER entered service, it could take a week or more for a freight car to navigate its way through Chicago. It was noted that paper carried by the BADGER on her first trip was in Buffalo, New York, twenty hours after being unloaded.

As for the other two ferries acquired by Conrad: CITY OF MIDLAND 41 was cut down to a barge and SPARTAN remains laid up at Ludington.

BADGER had problems with environmental regulations. In 1990, she was granted an exemption from Wisconsin laws governing emissions. In 2015, she was cleared to sail by the Environmental Protection Agency after installing ash-handling equipment so that coal ash would not be dumped into Lake Michigan.

PHOTO CREDIT: Great Lakes Marine Collection of the Milwaukee Public Library and Wisconsin Marine Historical Society.

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