The Badger is the only reciprocating steam engine ship still operating on the Great Lakes. In season, it make two trips daily between Ludington Mi and Manitowoc Wi. The stocker fed boilers produce steam for a pair of triple expansion Skinner engines which were the latest in efficiency when the ship was built.
The ship has had two persistent environmental problems. The first is that it does not meet any of the federal or state air quality standards. This problem was partially resolved about 30 yrs ago when Michigan passed a specific exemption for the Badger. I personally was involved in initiating this legislation. The second is the historical practice of dumping the ash into lake Michigan while they are underway. Region 5 of the US EPA would not allow this to continue and nearly shut down the service two years ago. The owner researched many options but felt that it was essential to maintain the ship as a steam ship so a refit with engines was out. They even considered firing the boilers with CNG which is common in northern Europe. The Coast Guard was way behind the curve on how to regulate the use of CNG aboard a passenger vessel.
The boiler control system was recently upgraded with modern combustion controls which explains the reduction of the black smoke. Still the emissions are uncontrolled and they are responsible for a continuing public nuisance problem around the expensive condos in Ludington. The ship is based in Ludington and is there during the winter but it is serviced with coal in Manitowoc. They back a dump trailer loaded with coal into the ship and dump the coal through grating in the cargo floor. They now store the ash on board but I have not seen how they remove it.
When they approach the ludington dock, they come in forward then drop the anchor, pivot around it, and back in. Docking in Manitowoc is more conventional. When they pivot around the anchor, the vibration at the rear of the ship is dramatic. I assume that it is from cavitation of the props. I asked a friend, who is an engineer on the ship, if this caused prop and shaft problems but he said that it does not. While they are docked in Ludingtion, they do a steam blow out the port side of the ship. It is very shocking if you happen to be nearby in your dinghy.
The ship provides an essential service and is important to the communities at each end to the route. It not only carries tourists but because of its size, it also carries trucks and special loads that would have a difficult time going around the bottom of lake Michigan and through Chicago. Hopefully, it will continue to be a healthy business.