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Stacks and Stories – the Storied History of the Badger and her Stack

a boat is docked next to a body of water

Photo by Drayton Blackgrove of Delay in Block Productions

The BADGER’s distinctive and ever-changing smokestack logos traced the ship’s service history, marking the high and low points throughout her 70-year history. Originally built for the Chesapeake and Ohio Railway, the BADGER has stood the test of time as she has experienced changes in the industry and ownership. Ludington, Michigan was formed as a lumbering town, which brought the railroad, thus bringing the Carferries. In the 1930’s Ludington was the largest Carferry port in the world, being home to 9 different ferries. The sizable operation for decades provided residents from Ludington and the surrounding region, including Wisconsin, with family-sustaining employment and a crucial element to the economies of the port cities serviced by the ferries. Today, Ludington is still the proud home port to the SS BADGER, which sails daily from mid-May to mid-October to Manitowoc, Wisconsin. She is the last operational ship of her kind.

C and O for Progress, Yellow Disk, Dark Blue Lettering, 1952-1961

The BADGER, built in 1953 and twin sister SPARTAN, built in 1952, were the first large financial investments made by the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway to its recently acquired Lake Michigan car ferry fleet. The C&O Railway assumed the operations of the Pere Marquette Railway in 1947, which became known as the Pere Marquette District of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway. The Pere Marquette boats had previously carried on their stacks a bright red disk from late 1926 until early 1950. The red disc represented “Red Ball”, which was a railroad industry term from the 1890s and popularized during the 1920s that signified “fast” or “express” freight. The red ball symbol was also adopted by civilian and military trucking operations. Beginning in 1950 the C&O car ferry fleet transitioned from the Pere Marquette red ball to its own first iteration of several stack logos. It was a yellow disc with “C and O” placed diagonally from the upper left and descending right, across a yellow field. The railroad’s slogan “For Progress” and a line representing a locomotive smoke trail was added later to the design, which first appeared on the SPARTAN in 1952. Shortly thereafter the modern single-stack, seven-ship fleet would receive the emblem.

In the fleet’s historical context, the bright yellow disc signified Ludington’s optimism in the C&O Railway and the confidence it had in the growth of its new ferry fleet and its ability to swiftly carry railroad cars loaded with a wide variety of freight from customers across the United States and Canada.

C and O for Progress, Dark Blue Disc, Yellow Lettering, 1961-1974

Most likely to keep the stacks looking clean and to reduce the frequency of the crew needing to scrub coal soot off the emblem, the Ludington fleet gradually phased out the yellow disc in 1961. By 1962 all ships were adorned with a dark blue disc. It was essentially a positive to negative reversal of the previous design. The dark disc coincided with the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway’s controlling interest of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad in 1963. The B&O Railroad had a direct rail line from the eastern seaboard into Chicago, which greatly diminished the advantages the car ferries had in routing freight across Lake Michigan, bypassing the Chicago railyard bottleneck. Despite C&O’s control of the two roads, Ludington employees expressed frustration that B&O management had no allegiance to the ferries or to the region and that B&O was vocal in their dissenting opinion on maintaining the operation. By the late 1960s high level corporate discussions were underway to diminish and eventually eliminate the Badger and the rest of the Ludington ferry fleet.

This bold update to the dark blue disc could be symbolic to challenging times ahead, however optimistic Ludington and its loyal employees were that the affiliated railroads would work through these changing economic conditions.

Chessie System, Dark Blue Disc, Yellow Lettering, 1975-1976

Reflecting the 1973 merger of the C&O, B&O and Western Maryland Railway and its corporate title of Chessie System, the stacks of the three remaining ferries in the Ludington fleet transitioned to a dark blue disc and the words Chessie System in yellow lettering. The words were stacked in two lines placed diagonally from the upper left and descending right across a dark blue field. The letter C in Chessie had the silhouette of C&O’s historic sleeping cat logo used by the railroad since the 1930s, long before it had a direct connection to the car ferries. This stack design was the least attractive, as the relatively small lettering size was frequently obliterated by a layer of coal soot. This design lasted only a full season during 1975 and was carried when the Chessie System petitioned the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) that year seeking complete abandonment its car ferry fleet.

This design was symbolic of the decline in prominence the Ludington ferry fleet once had in the industry.

Chessie in the C, Yellow Disc, Orange-Red Outer Ring, Dark Blue Lettering, 1976-1983

Probably the fleet’s most distinctive stack design, it was comprised of a bright yellow disc, set off by a vermilion outer ring, highlighted by a large blue letter C with the Chessie cat silhouette centered inside. The vibrant colors belied the fact that Chessie System’s railroad car ferries were in their last years of service and had won approval by the ICC to systematically abandon its three ferry routes, one port at a time. The Milwaukee run was eliminated in 1980, followed by Manitowoc in 1982, and Kewaunee in 1983.

This design was symbolic for the love the communities had for the fleet, as this is the best remembered and most beloved of the stack designs. Times were changing, but railroad employees and the public at large didn’t want to see the Carferries history come to an end.

MWT, Red Disc, White Lettering, 1983-1988

With basic stick lettering, interconnected “MWT” with the M placed diagonally from the upper left descending right with the M connecting with the WT across the lower half of a red field. In 1983 Ludington businessmen Glen Bowden and George Towns created Michigan-Wisconsin Transportation Co. to assume ownership and operation of the car ferries from Chessie System as it maintained the last run to Kewaunee. MWT was formed during last minute negotiations with Chessie and various maritime and railroad labor unions. They fought an uphill battle to remain solvent, relying on summer passenger and automobile traffic out of Kewaunee to support the low year-round volume of freight car tonnage. During much of this time the BADGER was a reserve ship, filling in when the City of Midland 41 was pulled from service for inspection or repairs. MWT had a five-year agreement with Chessie System (the latter of which provided financial support) to maintain service. In the fall of 1988 the Midland was laid up due to mechanical issues, with the Badger returning to service to maintain the Kewaunee to Ludington run for MWT until money ran out. Former employees were fond of saying that MWT stood for “Mother, We Tried.”

This design was symbolic of the BADGER’S new beginning, however not quite bold enough to predict what her future might bring.

MWT, Red Disc, Plain, 1989-1990

A step back in time to the Pere Marquette Railway era, Glen Bowden painted over Michigan-Wisconsin Transportation’s MWT lettering beginning in 1989, presumably to differentiate his operating company that ran the BADGER after Chessie System’s financial support ran out. The plain red disc, while not originally on the BADGER, was a throwback to her direct predecessor, the CITY OF MIDLAND 41, which carried the emblem for nearly a decade early in her career. The Badger ended 98 years of Lake Michigan railroad car ferry service on November 16, 1990, when MWT ceased operations.

This design was symbolic for holding on to hope that the BADGER’S history would remain alive, although many in the affected communities had thought it had finally come to an end.

LMC, Light Blue Disc, White Lettering and Stripes, 1992-1997

Holland, MI entrepreneur and philanthropist Charles Conrad purchased the assets of MWT from bankruptcy courts in 1991, forming Lake Michigan Trans-Lake Shortcut, Inc., operating as Lake Michigan Carferry Service. The first of three LMC designs was comprised of a light blue disc with a white outer ring. Across a light blue field were the letters LMC stylized in white, each letter fashioned into a rolling wave pattern. Beneath this was a horizontal set of white lines representing the horizon and a rippling lake. For a few years the top stripe had in small characters a silhouette of a seagull and the words Lake Michigan Carferry. This stack design represented the clean break that new owner Charles Conrad had in mind for the BADGER and her fleet mates. Realizing that railroad car transport was no longer viable, Conrad’s new Lake Michigan Carferry Service was focused on catering to the passenger and automobile trade. During the fall of 1991 and spring of 1992 the BADGER’s passenger spaces were extensively refurbished. Fresh, bright paint colors and new floor covering transformed the interior. Original 1950s lounge furniture was replaced with modern seating, and a new cafeteria was placed at the center of the lounge. Outside deck seating was also added. Several passenger staterooms in the middle of the ship were removed with the spaces converted to a movie theater, maritime museum, children’s playroom, video arcade and gift shop.

This design brought not only a symbol of newly restored hope and fresh beginnings, but it was a visual testament to the communities served that the BADGER had a future.

LMC, Stack – Red Front Segment, Black Rear Segment, White Lettering 1998-2005

In 1998 a successful effort was made by then LMC creative marketing director Kari Karr to update the BADGER to a modern but classic look. Seeking a bold departure from her existing appearance, a throwback to the ship’s original 1950s color scheme was chosen. It was set off by a modern, contrasting streak of bright red striping along the top of the ship’s hull. This was topped by the stack color painted a bright red in a tapered sweep on the forward portion of the stack, with the rear portion remaining black. On either side was a large, bold stylized font lettered in white, spelling the initials LMC.

This design symbolized and cemented the statement that the BADGER was not going anywhere and in fact, her future was brighter than ever. Not only was the stack update a reminder of her past, but the bright red stripe helped create a new brand for the beloved ship.

LMC, Red Disc, White Lettering, 2006-Present

After eight seasons of trying to keep the red portion of the stack free of coal soot, it was requested to revert to an all-black stack in time for the 2006 season. Utilizing the existing physical outline of the stack’s disc, it was painted a bright Pere Marquette Railway red, with the large LMC lettering running across and outside the borders of the disc. This remains a distinctive and attractive design, symbolizing bright times ahead.

In 2021, during her annual dry dock inspection, the BADGER received a completely new paint job. Her entire hull was sandblasted and 800 new gallons of paint solidified her bright future.

Special thank you to Carferry Historian, Art Chavez, for his help and contributions to this blog.

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