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They’re Still There

By Steam Across Lake Michigan

Winter 1998 | Volume 13 |  Issue 3

“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.

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