Rodney Ruell, a Great Lakes legend retires.

October 26, 2014
Rodney stokes the boilers of the Badger.

Rodney stokes the boilers of the Badger.

By Rob Alway. Editor-in-Chief. 

Today is the last sailing of the S.S. Badger for the 2014 season. The day is historic for the last coal burning ship on the Great Lakes. After today, the Badger will no longer discharge ash into Lake Michigan. But the significance of this day is more personal for 64-year-old Rodeny Ruell, the oldest maritime fireman on the Great Lakes.

It’s rather fitting that when the Badger arrives in port tonight about 7 p.m. it will mark the last crossing for Rodney, after 44 years he is retiring.

Rodney began his maritime career on the E.M. Ford, a steam-powered cement carrier. He was 19 and he quickly moved up to the rank of fireman. “I started out as a coal passer. We left Alpena and got as far as Muskegon when the fireman quit and got off the ship. So, I was moved up to fireman. I didn’t even have my ratings or anything.”

He worked on various coal-powered ships through the years. and in 1997 he was hired by Lake Michigan Carferry.

Life in the lower decks of the Badger is a little different than above. Up above, passengers relax in lounge chairs, recliners or in a stateroom bed. They play Badger Bingo and enjoy the Lake Michigan air. The ship is quiet. Down below, in the area known as the “Flicker,” the steam engines are loud. The area is dimly lit.

Rodney Ruell

Rodney Ruell

The coal burners are deep into the bow the ship. One has to go down a few flights of narrow stairs and then duck under large metal pipes into the noisy, hot, damp power center. This is the real deal. Old school. Flames shoot out of the burners as Rodney stokes the fire, keeping the Badger moving.

“You have to maintain steam pressure on the boiler,” Rodney says. “You need to make sure the steam levels are where they are supposed to be.” It sounds simple, but it’s an art. It’s a fine balance that keeps those passengers — and the captain — happy.

Rodney lives in Grand Lake, between Alpena and Roger City in Presque Isle County. Well, that’s where his house is. For the past 17 years, he has resided on the Badger from May to October. He rarely leaves the ship except to maybe grab a coffee at an establishment in Manitowoc.

When he does get home in October, he enjoys his vintage guitar collection. He has 44 of them. “I listen to a lot of music and do a lot of reading. When the winters aren’t too bad I like to travel,” he says.

This year’s vacation will be a lot longer.

“It’s time. My 64-year-old body has been telling me the past couple of years that it’s time to move on.”

Rodney says he would like to take a train ride across the U.S. “And then I want to go to Rio De Janeiro. I’ve always wanted to go there. I have spent 44 summers on these steamers and want to see a real beach.”

Reflecting back, Rodney has few words:

“I want to see the Badger burn coal forever,” he says. “I hope they get 100 more years out of her. Tree huggers be damned.”

He wanted to part with a short poem:

“The captain, the chief, the devil said too: Good God all mighty that iron fireman got the fire aisle blues.”

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