Iconic Great Lakes car ferry SS Badger sold

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

An iconic, coal-fired car ferry that's among the last operating in the Great Lakes has been sold. 

Ohio-based Interlake Holding Company announced Wednesday it purchased the SS Badger, a historic passenger-and-car ferry along with two other vessels and assets of the Pere Marquette Shipping Company and Lake Michigan Car Ferry Company.

Besides the SS Badger, the deal includes acquisition of the Articulated Tug-Barge Undaunted-Pere Marquette 41 and the SS Spartan, a sister ship to the Badger that's currently not in operation.

The SS Badger docks in Ludington, Mich., to unload passengers and vehicles that made a 4-hour trip from Manitowoc, Wisc. on July 3, 2015. The U.S. 10 sign on the back indicates that it connects the highway between Michigan and Wisconsin.

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

Mark W. Barker, president of Interlake Holding said he's welcoming new employees, vessel lines and customers into the company's Great Lakes operation. The Badger, with its storied history, will continue on, he said. 

"The Badger has a very consistent, loyal fan base and followers," Barker told The News. "This vessel is a National Historic Landmark. That's a neat aspect of it and something we truly appreciate."

Under the acquisition, Interlake Maritime Services was created to manage the new businesses and Interlake Steamship Company's fleet of nine freighters.

Robert Manglitz, president of Pere Marquette Shipping and Lake Michigan Car Ferry, said the agreement was "a good fit" for the family-owned companies. 

“It was critical for us to find not only a highly committed and capable vessel operator but also a company that shared our culture of putting its employees and customers first," he said. 

The families that own Interlake Holding also own Seastreak, a fleet of high-speed passenger ferries that operate in New York Harbor and from various locations on the east coast, including New Bedford, Mass.

LMC and Tug-Barge Executive Vice-President Don Clingan noted car ferries in Ludington have been an economic driver for the community for more than 100 years.

The Articulated Tug-Barge Undaunted-Pere Marquette 41 was among the vessels acquired Wednesday by Ohio-based Interlake Holding Company

The Badger first entered service on Lake Michigan in 1953. The ship briefly halted services amid financial challenges but underwent an overhaul.

"When the Badger ended service in November of 1990, many employees and local citizens believed that the era of car ferry service had ended," Clingan said. "The rebirth of the Badger in 1992 marked a major milestone in maritime history on the Great Lakes."

This ownership change 29 years later, Clingan added, marks another milestone that will extend its legacy into the future for both port cities. 

Barker said discussions about the succession plan arose in late summer or early fall.

"That conversation ended up leading to where we are today," he said. 

The ownership changes took effect Wednesday. Interlake assumes all employees and is in the process of bringing them on board, Barker added. 

The sale comes several years after the Badger was designated as a National Historic Landmark by the Department of Interior.

The ferry serves as the last example of the Great Lakes rail and car ferry design that influenced the design of ferries around the world. Lake Michigan had the first of three open-water Great Lakes crossings for rail cars. 

The SS Badger's future previously was uncertain 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 following a $2.4 million upgrade to its ash retention system and combustion controls to stop the discharge of ash into Lake Michigan.

Lake Michigan Carferry made the modifications to the ship over a two-year span.

Barker said the Spartan is stationed in Ludington but it hasn't run in years. The company, he said, intends to explore opportunities for it.