Trip Report: Chessie alive and afloat

Editor’s Note: This replaces October’s “SACOM For Progress…” monthly update.
This is also the first part of a two-part series on our trip to Michigan.

The S.S. Badger floating into Ludington on the evening of Oct. 7, 2021.

A quintet of SACOM members ventured north to Michigan last month for a C&O history-filled weekend. The idea, however, started several months prior when Mike Burgett invited SACOM and its members up to his famed Clifton Forge Division (1965) HO model railroad layout.

With a date set of mid-October, the time drew closer and several of us decided to expand on the invitation and add a round-trip on the S.S. Badger in the days prior to the planned operating session at Burgett’s. Built for the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway in 1953, the S.S. Badger was built to transport railroad cars across Lake Michigan to shortcut Chicago. Intended for year-round service, she was also built as an ice breaker with a thick and wide forward hull and blunt-edge screws to churn and break the ice. She served as a railroad car ferry for 30 some years before taking up a different career.

Today, however she serves neither of those purposes. Instead, she now carries automobiles, tractor-trailers, high-and-wide loads, and other speciality equipment between May and October. While some things have changed, others have not. She retains several of her staterooms, her coal-fired boilers, 1950s era placards, and maintains a route (Ludington-Manitowoc) she was charged with during her original career with the railroad. She is also now and official part of U.S. Route 10.

Cory’s pork chop, mac and cheese, and green bean entree.

Jesse Smith, Paul Tabit, and I traded railroad fellowship on our ride up on Thursday. At some point during the trip, the thought that we might be able to catch the Badger coming into port crossed my mind. Jesse reaffirmed this idea but was afraid to be the first to say anything as he feared that we may be delayed enroute for any number of reasons… and we encountered our share of delays. However, despite the setbacks, we pulled up to the lake shore just a few minutes before the Badger appeared as a small, faint, silhouette on the foggy lake. We walked out on the northern breakwater strip and met the ship just a few minutes before she passed the lighthouse.

We watched the ship perform it’s signature spin and dock back into Ludington before breaking for dinner. Without any real idea on where to eat, we headed back towards town and found an excellent restaurant just a few blocks away from the ship. Crown and Cork offered superb food for a decent price. We went over to the Badger’s slip following dinner and walked around the grounds examining both the Badger and her elder sister ship the S.S. Spartan (built in 1950). The Spartan, unfortunately, is tied up indefinitely. But thankfully she is preserved for historical interpretation.

Tyler Wylie demonstrating how a Badger bed is used with the folded down bed on the right.

Following dinner, we checked into our hotel and bedded in preparation of our round-trip journey across Lake Michigan aboard a living legend the next day. The alarm woke us sharply at 7:30 a.m. to get ready for the day. We were met by two other SACOM members dockside that morning. Tyler Wylie and Mike Rhodes had taken a different journey than we did the day prior and took advantage of hobby shops along the way.

We boarded as a group and Smith had rented a stateroom for the entire trip, mainly to store our belongings. An interesting fact about the beds inside the staterooms is that they are based on those used on Pullman railroad cars with one of two available beds store vertically in the wall. The toilet and sink fixtures were also those used on passenger railroad cars of the era.

Most of the trip was spent on the main deck, outside enjoying fresh air and fellowship and listening Jesse Smith explain the history he’s researched about the boat and the carferry operations. We enjoyed a few rounds of “Badger Bingo,” ate lunch, and enjoyed the relaxing ride across the lake. With a short turnaround time in Manitowoc, Tyler and I ventured out on a breakwater wall and snapped a few photos of the Badger docked. Jesse, Paul, and Mike found a restaurant nearby and ate a quick lunch before we all boarded back on the Badger for the return trip home.

It was a simple, yet amazing time, knowing you’re riding on a living piece of history that is still coal-fueled, steam-powered and in regular service. And, it’s the only ship that can claim this token in the United States today. And we can say with confidence that she’ll be doing it for the foreseeable future. The ship was bought last year by the Interlake Steamship Company. That company announced following the close of the Badger’s season, which ended two days after we sailed, that it would tow the ship to Sturgeon Bay for a complete “bare metal” repaint, regular maintenance, and crews will be applying an epoxy to the lower hull to help prevent corrosion and extend the usable life of the hull. The Badger will also be returning to two round trips per day for her 2022 season – meaning both a day and a night crossing!

Stay tuned for part two, where we spent two days operating on Mike Burgett’s HO Scale (1965) Clifton Forge Division.

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