LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
The S.S. Badger is the largest coal-fired passenger ship still operating in the United States. It sails in Lake Michigan, carrying cars between Ludington, Mich., and Manitowoc, Wis. For years, it was the focus of environmental scrutiny because of its practice of dumping waste coal ash directly into the lake. But as Tom Carr reports, that has now changed.
TOM CARR, BYLINE: Captain Jeffrey Curtis informs the city of Ludington that the Badger is leaving the port...
(SOUNDBITE OF BOAT HORN)
CARR: ...And then gives orders to the boiler room crew with a bell and talks to the helmsman at the wheel.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
CAPTAIN JEFFREY CURTIS: Two, eight, zero, please.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Two, eight, zero.
CARR: The bell is connected to a communication device called a Chadburn. He says the Badger, which has been sailing since 1953, is the only ship on the Great Lakes that still uses one.
CURTIS: We are still working as if we were in mid-century here, so we have engine-order telegraphs to communicate our needs to the engineers down in the engine room.
CARR: The pilothouse has a lot more brass and fewer computers than you'll see in newer ships, hearkening back to when seven ferries operated out of Ludington. Now it's the only one. Bryce Goddard of Cleveland, Tenn., braved a chilly but sunny morning to sit out on the deck watching Michigan fade away.
BRYCE GODDARD: I keep waiting for this shoreline to disappear, but it just lasts forever, which I'm glad of. That's my last view of Michigan for a long time probably.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: O-63, N-33.
CARR: Inside, passengers play bingo, watch a movie or TV, take a nap, read a book or use the Wi-Fi. That's right - Wi-Fi on a coal-powered ferry. David Flaspohler of Hancock, Mich., likes the smell of the ship.
DAVID FLASPOHLER: I think it's the coal boilers or something. There's a certain smell that the ship has. Must be something about the mechanism of the ship or the lubricants or whatever it is they use in these old boats.
CARR: This trip almost wasn't possible. After decades of letting the Badger pollute the lake, the EPA issued an ultimatum - stop dumping or be grounded. Finally, this off-season, the boat's owner installed a $2 million solution - a set of blue pipes that collect ash each trip, about 500 tons per year. And once a week, that ash gets trucked to Charlevoix for use in making cement products. Badger engineer Chuck Cart says it wasn't easy to install this new system.
CHUCK CART: We don't have a lot of space here, so we needed to design a bin that would fit in the space that we weren't using to haul cars and trucks.
CARR: The boat trip is only three to five hours shorter than driving around the lake. And there are certainly faster ferries at other Lake Michigan ports. But Mary Lou Deutsch of Traverse City says that's not the point.
MARY LOU DEUTSCH: Life isn't for going fast. Life is for enjoying the ride, and this has been delightful.
CARR: And now that the Badger runs a bit greener, a leisurely ride across Lake Michigan is no longer a guilty pleasure. For NPR News, I'm Tom Carr in Interlochen, Mich.