By Steam Across Lake Michigan
“NOT A LOT OF THESE PEOPLE EVEN KNOW it’s a steamship,” says Thom Hawley, director of public relations for the 410-foot-long SS Badger , as we walk through her main passenger deck. Around us families are eating dinner from a shipboard cafeteria while somewhere far below them two coal-fired four-cylinder steam engines each twenty feet high and twenty-four feet long propel them and their automobiles through the night.
“The Badger ,” Hawley tells me, “was the last and biggest steam-powered passenger-and-car ferry ever built in North America. When the Badger was launched, in 1952, she held 34 fully loaded railroad cars; today she holds 180 automobiles and 625 passengers.
“Ferry service began a long decline not long after then. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, which built the Badger , ultimately sold it to a company that went bankrupt in 1990. For eighteen months there was no cross-lake car ferry anywhere on Lake Michigan. We formed our company to rescue the Badger and had her running again by 1992. As you can see, business is good now.”
Down two companionways, beneath the automobile deck—covered not only with cars but also with a half a dozen tractor-trailers cutting days off a trip around the lake—we enter the engine room. The engines are encased in whitepainted steel housings, so you don’t see much of their workings until you peer through the Plexiglas windows at their bases and see their huge cranks turning a fifteen-inch-wide shaft at a stately 95 rpm.
They are 3,500-hp Steeple Compound Unaflow engines, made by the Skinner Engine Company, of Erie, Pennsylvania. Each looks like a row of four steeples, narrower at the top because each of the four vertical pistons has a high-pressure cylinder head near there that pushes upward and a larger lower-pressure cylinder head below that pushes the same piston rod back downward. They make a clean rhythmic sound.
Hawley points out the chief engineer, Bill Kulka, a bearded man in coveralls conversing with his fireman. He is much too busy to talk right now, so after a glance at the four big boilers that burn 50 tons of coal a day to keep up 450 pounds of steam, we head up to the forward pilothouse (the Badger has pilothouses both front and back). There, high above the water, all is darkness and silence. A watchman scans the rainy distance through binoculars; the wheelsman watches his course setting on the brass-housed magnetic compass in front of him and his rudder angle on the repeater overhead. Nothing looks modern except a radar set and globalpositioning equipment off to one side. At the captain’s right and left are Chadburn marine telegraphs for sending orders to the engine room, their dials indicating ahead and astern speeds from full to slow as well as stop and stand by.
When after a while we head back down from the pilothouse—the sixty-mile crossing takes four hours—we find the chief engineer happy to chat. “I came out of the Navy in ‘81,” Kulka tells me, “and went and got a business degree. But I guess I wanted to be out on the water.
“Everyone who really knows how to work on these engines is dead, so it’s a good thing how they really don’t screw up,” he says. “Our four boilers have 1,200 tubes apiece, and they need a lot of attention, but as for the engines themselves, nothing has changed except for four little indicators. And they can reverse so quick you can’t even see it. You just use two levers to control the start and stop of the steam admission. Come take a look at how easy they run when we’re bringing her into port.”
An hour or so later I do. In the engine room an oiler stands between the engines, watching a panel of steam-pressure gauges overhead and two Chadburns on either side, one for each engine from each pilothouse. At the sound of a bell a black marker moves on one of the Chadburns to show that the captain has indicated a change from full to half ahead on the starboard engine. The oiler lines up a brass marker on the Chadburn with the black one, the chief engineer swings a valve cutoff lever on the side of the engine housing, and the engine slows. When soon thereafter the chief engineer cuts the steam completely, the engine falls silent and the overhead pressure gauge drops to zero in less than two seconds. A moment later the captain has signaled half-steam astern, and the engine starts in reverse as quickly and smoothly as it stopped. A minute or two more of this, and we are in harbor, and the cars that boarded in Ludington, Michigan, begin rolling off in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.
“You see,” Kulka says to me, “we’re like good old boys who keep their cars and trucks going for forty or fifty years. Except their 350 Chevy has a 3½-inch stroke. These things have a 26-inch stroke.”