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Car Trip: last of the Lake Michigan ferries

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Travel writers are perpetually rediscovering the five Great Lakes of North America. With each new tourist season they remind us that the lakes are the largest body of fresh water in the world, that technically they are not lakes but inland seas, and that skeptical merchant sailors from abroad quickly acknowledge the lakes' waves, winds, and currents to be as treacherous as any salt water. They also tell us the lakes can be astonishingly beautiful and restorative.

It's all true, yet for the tourist the lakes remain a tease. Despite all the hype, they're almost impossible to cross unless you own your own boat. Dinner boats like the Star of Chicago may enable landlubbers to feel the breeze and survey the shoreline for a few hours. But commercial transportation across a Great Lake, i.e. an actual ship sailing on a schedule and offering common carriage port to port, is almost extinct.

The sole exception is the S.S. (that means "Steamship") Badger, making two daily sailings in summer and one a day in winter between the Wisconsin port of Kewaunee and the venerable west Michigan port of Ludington. You can board any sailing, even occupy a private stateroom with berth and bath, if you like. Your car can go along, too. If you're in the business of shipping freight, you can book passage for your semitrailer trucks or your boxcars. The Badger carries anything and everything, just as its predecessors have been doing since 1892, when the Ann Arbor Railroad commissioned a fleet of steam-powered ships to carry loaded railroad cars from its dock at Frankfort, Michigan, to several railheads on the Wisconsin shore.

Competing characters--the Pere Marquette and the Grand Trunk Western--built fleets of their own. By the 1940s, 35 car ferries were in scheduled service across Lake Michigan.

Like the railroads that owned them, the ferries took a bashing from the construction of the Interstate highway system in the 1960s. Trucks ran from interior Michigan through Chicago and up into Wisconsin in less than a day. Tourist traffic began sliding too. In pre-Interstate days, Chicagoans bound for Traverse City or Mackinac routinely drove the 85 miles to Milwaukee, put the car aboard a ferry, and spent a refreshing five hours cruising to Muskegon or Ludington before resuming the punishing car trip north. But I-94 brought Muskegon within four comfortable driving hours of Chicago and Ludington within five, making the car-boat-car option a net loss in hours.

By the late 1970s the traveler's translake options were dwindling fast. First the Grand Trunk then the Ann Arbor mothballed their fleets. The Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad, an eastern carrier that bought the Pere Marquette in 1947, stayed strongest, keeping the Badger, its sister ship Spartan, and an older look-alike, the City of Midland, running from Ludington to Kewaunee, Manitowoc, and Milwaukee. But the C & O wanted out too, and by the early 1980s it looked as if translake car ferry service would end entirely before reaching its hundredth birthday in 1992.

That was too much for Glenn Bowden, 65, a Ludington contractor and hotelier. In 1983 he bought the three ferries from the C & O for $1 apiece and began running them himself. A bargain? Not when you read the fine print. With the ships went their 38-person crews, members of ten separate railroad and maritime unions, each with its own set of onerous labor agreements. Bowden's Michigan-Wisconsin Transportation Company (MWT) had to keep all agreements in force for six years, during most of which time the boats made no money. Today only one of the three steamers actually operates, and on the Wisconsin side it serves only Kewaunee. Manitowoc and Milwaukee have been dropped from the itinerary.

But a year ago the six-year grandfather clause expired, and new ones now being negotiated may just give MWT the refreshment it needs to earn some profit and rebuild the service.

"You can say some very complimentary things about what has been happening with labor here," says Tom Minard, a 45-year-old Saint Charles native and Ravenswood resident who joined Bowden in 1984 and serves as superintendent of steamships. "The maritime unions have seen the future."

Minard sees another form of encouragement looming on the horizon--fresh traffic. "In the past three years the rail-car loadings have run about 3,800 cars a year," he says. "Our main problem now is to supplement those railroad cars with trucks." Minard claims he's got a marketing strategy that should start attracting truckers soon and market data that document the existence of potential traffic.

As for the tourists, that business continues to remain strong, especially in the peak summer months. A recent crossing from Kewaunee to Ludington showed why. The drama began to build even before departure as employees piloted passengers' autos up a spiral ramp to the auto deck while 400 passengers shuffled up a timber staircase onto the boat (in Great Lakes parlance, even a 400-foot ship full of people, autos, trucks, and railroad cars is called a "boat").

Twenty minutes before departure, the Badger's throaty steam whistle blew a warning that echoed off the surrounding hills, and right on the dot it blew again as the lines were cast off. Very slowly, the Wisconsin shore fell astern. Except for the calmness of the lake, where swells were running a gentle three or four feet, it was as exciting as the day 22 years ago when I sailed for Norway from the north British port of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Well before the Badger was out of sight of land (about 90 minutes) the mystique of the lake was upon us. With nothing on the horizon, one might as well have been at sea. The 90-degree shore temperatures had dropped to 70, and the 18-mile-per- hour cruising speed stirred a breeze that made strollers on deck button up. About half the passengers relaxed in the after lounge, where video games keep teenagers busy; the other half sunbathed on the broad foredeck beneath the bridge. There was no machinery noise, only the steady waterfall sound of the Badger's bow parting the lake.

So what if the fabric on the sofa in my cabin dated back to the Badger's maiden voyage in 1953? So what if the dining room closed as a cost-control measure? (A snack bar dispenses nachos and soft drink machines cater to thirst.)

The important thing was that the Badger was still providing transportation. We were actually going somewhere aboard a ship (oops--"boat"). When we made fast at Ludington four hours later we had done something mere party boats don't do. Instead of returning to the same port, we had reached the other side of Lake Michigan. As the British say, "We had a good crossing."

Through Labor Day the S.S. Badger makes two round-trip crossings per day, seven days a week. Ludington departures are at 9:30 AM and 9:30 PM, EDT. Kewaunee departures are at 2:30 AM and 2:30 PM, CDT. After Labor Day, one sailing a day will be offered Monday through Friday only, with departure from Ludington at 9:30 AM and from Kewaunee at 2:30 PM. Fares are $27 for adults, $13.50 for children aged 5-15. Autos are carried at a charge of $40 each. Call (616) 843-2521 for reservations.

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