Snakes On The Water

The SS Badger is still kicking ash after 62 years

For 100 years, beginning in the mid-1800s, numerous train, car, cargo and passenger ferries made possible the commute across the lake between Michigan and Wisconsin. Today, the Badger is the last coal-fired passenger vessel still in service in the United States.

The Badger was inaugurated in 1953, a decade before Cobras started rolling off Carroll Shelby’s California “assembly line.” Eisenhower was president, and a gallon of gasoline was only 20 cents at the time.

Taking this ship across Lake Michigan was a no-brainer to include in the annual Cobra Tour that Jim Maxwell and I host. This year’s route took our 289 and 427 Cobras through northern Michigan, the Upper Peninsula and down into Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, home of Road America. Although a faster ferry out of Milwaukee crosses the lake in half the time, it lacks the Badger’s charisma.

The 6,650-ton Badger is nearly 60 feet wide, 7 stories tall and 410 feet long, or about as long as 30 Cobras parked nose-to-tail. As we drove our Cobras into the car deck, it became apparent just how massive it was: It will hold 180 cars of all shapes and sizes.

The Badger and its sister ship, the SS Spartan, were built to haul up to 34 railroad cars plus passengers for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad (C&O) across Lake Michigan, which they did until 1979 (Spartan) and 1990 (Badger), respectively. But just when it seemed the cross-lake ferry business was finished, a Ludington businessman bought and converted the Badger to haul cars and passengers.

In 1992, the Badger hit the water again, hauling vacationers, commuters and truckers — as well as the occasional Cobra Tour — from shore to shore. Now, more than 100,000 people sail on the Badger each season, which runs from May to October

I had contacted Badger spokeswoman Terri Brown months earlier and requested access to the ship’s inner workings, and she had all the clearances approved before our arrival.

Being a gearhead, I was eager to learn about the guts of a coal-powered ship. I was invited down into the engine room for a lesson on the ship’s mechanics by Chief Engineer Bill Kulka, a former Navy sailor who has worked on the Badger since 1996.

Talk about a big-block! The Badger runs on twin four-cylinder, coal-fired Skinner Unaflow steam engines, each longer than my 289 Cobra. “These engines have dry-sump oiling systems that use 1,000-weight synthetic lubricant,” Kulka said, as he showed me the camshaft, crankshaft, connecting rods and valve train through glass inspection windows in the block.

Here is where it gets freaky; Kulka asked me for a nickel, which he balanced on its edge on the engine block. “See how smoothly this engine runs?” he said.

“Each engine produces 3,500 horsepower, or 7,000 total.” So the collective power of our 12 small-block (271 horsepower each) and three big-block (425 horsepower each) Cobras would provide just two-thirds of this ship’s power.

“Redline is 100 rpm, but we usually keep it at 96 or 97,” Kulka said. “The pistons are 21.5 inches in diameter and have a 26-inch stroke. The valves are 12 inches in diameter.”

Kulka said torque was a major consideration when these engines were designed. Since this ship originally operated year round, it also had to be an ice breaker as it crossed the frozen Lake Michigan in the winter.

Powering two huge 14-foot steel propellers, separated by the rudder, the engines produce a collective 167,000 pound-feet of torque. At less than 100 rpm! Crossing the lake requires just 22,000 crankshaft revolutions.

At full steam over smooth water and no headwind, the Badger could speed along at a brisk 21 mph, but 15–16 mph is cruising speed for cross-lake jaunts these days.

Fuel economy? Each roundtrip requires 25 tons of coal, which is a far cry from the 4.5 gallons my Cobra would have needed to drive the 61 miles across the lake — assuming it could drive across water. Each morning, dump trucks in Manitowoc deliver 50 tons of coal to fuel the two daily roundtrips. The coal is transported to a holding area by conveyor belt. Before entering the engine, the coal gets loaded into a crusher, which turns it into a fine, easy burning powder. The final trip to the four boilers is accomplished through an auger system.

At the end of my engine-room tour, I stopped at the top of the narrow stairway to the upper decks and looked back at the engine block. My nickel was still on its edge.

Next stop was the pilothouse, or bridge, which is the cockpit for the ferry. Ascending several flights of stairs, I entered a large, well-lit room with lots of windows, but no bucket seats. The driver must stay on his feet, usually with a pair of binoculars, constantly looking for pleasure craft that may be in the Badger’s path.

I was introduced to Captain Jeffery Curtis, who has piloted Great Lakes steamships for 14 years. This was his third year as captain of the Badger. I asked Curtis what docking this 410-foot vessel was like.

“It’s like driving a car down your street at 45 mph, throwing it into a powerslide and backing into your garage without hitting anything.” he said. “We rotate the boat in a space just beyond its length and make a U-turn to bring it into dock.”

At which point Curtis asked if I’d like to give it a try.

“You mean, steer this four-foot steering wheel?” I asked. Curtis nodded and smiled.

Up to this point, the largest vehicle I had driven was the Grave Digger monster truck. After instructions from Helmsman Scott Peck, I took my turn at the wheel.

“Keep looking at that lighthouse,” Curtis advised as we approached the Michigan side of the lake. He showed me how to read the compass and the rudder angle indicator. But no matter how straight I tried to keep the vessel, I had to saw the wheel left and right to stay aimed at the lighthouse.

Curtis told me not to feel bad. “Smoothness comes with practice,” he said. “And besides, there’s a strong crosswind today.”

I thanked the captain and helmsman and reluctantly surrendered the wheel a couple of miles from shore.

I walked back down to the passenger decks and caught up with my Cobra Tour friends, who, while I was exploring the Badger’s inner workings, had kept busy with the “boatique,” bingo parlor and even a fishing seminar.

As we approached the shore, I heard the ship’s horns blast. Captain Curtis told me that it would sound when we were 1.5 miles from shore, to warn dock workers of our arrival.

Just before we docked, the Cobra drivers were asked to descend to the car deck and prepare to drive off the ship ahead of the other passenger vehicles.

The Badger was declared 2002 Ship of the Year by the Steamship Society. The engines are designated as a mechanical engineering landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. And the very week we rode the Badger, it was named an official section of the Interstate Highway System. Because of the historical significance of this aging steamship, both Michigan and Wisconsin have passed legislation allowing the Badger to emit coal smoke from its stacks. The ash byproduct of the spent coal is retained and recycled and used in cement production.

Driving our Cobras around the northern half of Lake Michigan had been a blast, but to have continued south through Milwaukee and Chicago or to have taken the modern ferry would have been much less enjoyable.

Crossing on the vintage SS Badger was the ideal method of traversing this huge body of water in our vintage cars. It simply doesn’t get any better.

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