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The SS Badger, the last Great Lakes car ferry in operation, has been designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior.

“The SS Badger is a unique example of American ingenuity in transportation that has been crucial to our country’s economic development over the last century,” National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said in a statement Thursday.

The ferry, operated by Lake Michigan Carferry, is the last example of the Great Lakes rail and car ferry design that influenced the design of ferries around the world, officials said.

For more than 60 years, the 410-foot vessel with room for 600 passengers and 180 vehicles has steamed across Lake Michigan to and from Ludington and Manitowac, Wisconsin.

Lake Michigan had the first of three open-water Great Lakes crossings for rail cars. It was more efficient and economical than shipping freight by rail around the southern end of the lake, officials said.

The future of the SS Badger was uncertain a few short years ago when U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials targeted the ferry, which is powered by coal, for dumping coal ash into the lake during each crossing.

In 2013, a federal judge cleared the way for the car ferry operation to continue after a new ash retention system and combustion controls were installed. The boat’s owners say it cost about $2.4 million for improvements.

Among the benefits of the national designation is access to grant opportunties for preservation efforts through the Historic Preservation Fund, according to the National Park Service. There are also federal tax incentives are available for rehabilitation and for easements, which protect historic property.

Congressman Bill Huizenga said Thursday the landmark status for the ferry comes after nearly five years “and countless bureaucratic hoops.”

“This designation highlights not only the economic importance of the vessel to Ludington, Michigan, and Manitowoc, Wisconsin, but its historical significance to the entire Great Lakes region,” the Zeeland Republican said in a statement.

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

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