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The Last Ferries : In the early 1970s, 15 vessels ferried people, autos and rail cars on the Great Lakes. Three are left--and their fate is in doubt.

Times Staff Writer

It was a frigid, blustery morning on Lake Michigan not long ago as the 412-foot Badger, one of the last of the Great Lakes auto ferries, sliced through the ice leaving Ludington, Mich., bound northwest for Kewaunee, Wis.

On clear days, land fades from sight about an hour out on the 62-mile, four-hour crossing. But on this gloomy, cloudy day, as the coal-fired steamer was buffeted by chill winds, Michigan’s shoreline vanished in just a few minutes.

With its bow designed like that of an icebreaker, the Badger cuts through ice like a knife through butter. About once every 30 years the lake freezes solid all the way across, with ice 10 to 15 feet thick. But this was mild winter, and most of the lake remained free of ice.

“For mid-Americans this is a Christopher Columbus experience--sailing on a ship out of sight of land,” allowed the Badger’s silver-haired skipper, Gus Barth, 63, in the wheelhouse of the 37-year-old vessel.

“We’re all alone out here, orphans this time of the year. During summer, the lake is alive with ships--with freighters, ore boats, coal boats, with ships flying foreign flags. But not now. Just us,” the crusty skipper mused. With his 46 years on the water--both on the Great Lakes and at sea during World War II--his shipmates call him the “ancient mariner.”

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Hanging in the Balance

Barth and the 38 members of the Badger’s crew hope that the Great Lakes ferries will still be operating this summer and for years to come. But the future is in doubt for the Badger and for the only two other ferries left.

A decision is due by July 1 on whether to keep them plying their year-round route between Wisconsin and lower Michigan. The decision will depend on whether the ferry operator can obtain guarantees of adequate commercial business, mainly from railroads.

Fifteen automobile and railroad ferry boats crisscrossed Lake Michigan as recently as the early 1970s, connecting the Wisconsin cities of Milwaukee, Manitowac and Kewaunee with Muskegon, Ludington and Frankfort on the Michigan side.

Large ferry boats have been important commercial carriers between the two states since the 1850s, saving hundreds of miles of road travel. Since the 1890s, they have been operated by the railroads and carry rail cars as well as automobiles, trucks and passengers. Five railroads owned and operated the ships, but after the government deregulated transportation in the 1970s the ships were gradually abandoned until only the ones operated by the Chesapeake & Ohio (now part of CSX Corp.) were left.

Finally, in 1983, C&O; was granted permission to abandon its ferry system, but Glen Bowden, who is now 63 and a lifelong resident of Ludington, came to the rescue. Bowden, owner of a construction business and the 65-room Stearns Motor Inn, bought the ferry boat line for $3--in effect paying $1 each for the ferries: the City of Midland, built in 1941, and the sister ships Badger, built in 1952, and Spartan, a year younger.

Agreements Honored

Bowden has been operating only one of the three boats at a time, two round-trip crossings seven days a week from mid-June through Labor Day and one round trip five days a week the rest of the year.

As part of the purchase agreement, Bowden promised to honor existing agreements with 10 maritime and labor unions representing 160 employees for a six-year period ending July 1, 1989. C&O; agreed to pay 20% of the $20-million payroll for the six-year period, with Bowden picking up the rest.

“If the ferry service ceases, Ludington (population 9,000) will become a ghost town,” Bowden said in an interview. “It is the lifeline of the community. We have been promoting and advertising the ferry service throughout the Midwest. Last year was our best year. We carried 90,000 passengers, 24,000 cars and trucks and 3,800 rail cars. Our revenue has been increasing each of the past six years.”

But it has been a costly undertaking. Bowden said the ferries have been losing $300,000 to $500,000 a year. Yet, he is optimistic, believing that revenue from the increased traffic he expects will move the operation out of the red.

“I could have walked away from this at any time,” he said, “but I’m stubborn. The end of the ferry service could mean the end of my motel and many businesses in town. The local Chamber of Commerce says $10 million in tourist dollars a year would be lost if the ferry shut down.”

One-third of the ferry operation’s income comes from carrying rail cars, two-thirds from automobiles and trucks, mostly summer vacationers. Bowden hopes that traffic will increase this summer to the point where he can have two ferries in service. He dreams of a time when all three might operate.

In summer, the largest boat, the City of Midland, carries 609 passengers, 23 rail cars and up to 180 automobiles.

But on the recent wintry day, the company and its passengers faced cold reality. There was only a handful of people on the Badger for the two-way crossing.

Safer Than Driving

Shortly after coming aboard the Badger in Ludington, Elaine Voight, 22, bedded down her daughter, Heather, four months, and son, Eric, 2, in a state room. The one-way trip costs $22; children 5 to 15, $11, and under 5, free. Fare for a car, not including passengers, is $32. A state room is $10 extra.

Voight had been visiting her parents in Unionville, Mich., and was returning with her children to her home in River Falls, Wis. “Roads are treacherous in this part of the country in winter. It’s a lot safer crossing the lake on the ferry than driving nearly 500 miles around the lake through Chicago,” she said.

The Badger has many of the amenities of a cruise ship: deck chairs, lounges, dining room and state rooms.

Tom Hughes, 51, of Luther, Mich., en route to Minneapolis on a business trip, sits in the empty main lounge watching television. “What a bargain,” he exclaimed. “In winter, this ship is like being on a private cruise. Nobody’s here.”

Dennis Lashey, 41, a cook on the ships for 24 years, said, “My father, my grandfather and three uncles all worked for the Lake Michigan ferry boats.

“When I started, it seemed like this was a job with a future. Now, nobody knows how long any of us will be working.”


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