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The Ghost Ship

The 1901 yacht, called the Sachem, lies like a ghost ship moored in a small tributary off the Ohio River in Boone County, Kentucky. Photo: Tim Webb
Robert “Butch" Miller of Cincinnati, Ohio, purchased the ship and sailed it 2,600 miles along waterways from New York to this small tributary in Kentucky. Photo: Tim Webb
The ship, renamed UUS Sachem SP 192, was requisitioned in 1917 for use during World War I. Photo: Tim Webb
Thomas Edison lived on the ship during 1917, doing experiments to help the U.S. Navy defend against German U-boats during WWI. Photo: Tim Webb
The Sachem had many names and changed many hands over it's 118-year history. The U.S. requisitioned the ship for use during World War II. Photo: Tim Webb
The ship was a popular sightseeing cruise liner—named the Sightseer, Circle Line Sightseer then Circle Line V—in Manhattan, NY, from 1946 until 1971. Photo: Tim Webb
Around 1985, Robert “Butch" Miller of Cincinnati, Ohio, purchased the ship, renaming her the Sachem, and sailed her to Boone County, Kentucky, in 1987 to restore it. Tim Webb
The Sachem, on private property (it is illegal to trespass) has long since been moored in this small tributary in Boone County, Kentucky. Photo: Tim Webb

From yacht to Navy ship and Thomas Edison’s lab, to fishing party boat and Circle Line sightseeing boat, the Sachem is waiting to be saved

The story of how a 175-foot ship wound up in a small creek in Boone County is as fascinating as the people who have sailed her.

According to The Sachem Project, the luxury New York steam yacht, christened the Celt in 1902 was used by businessman and yacht enthusiast John Rogers Maxwell. “…this vessel was the toast of the whole New York coastline for nearly a decade,” reads The Sachem Project.

When interest in yachting wained, the ship was sold in 1911 to be used as a private yacht and renamed the Sachem.

During World War I the Navy requisitioned her in 1917, renaming her USS Sachem SP 192, and converted her to war service. Thomas Edison—inventor of the first incandescent lightbulb and first electric car—used the ship for experiments to help the U.S. defend against German U-boats.

The history and photos of Edison’s time on the USS Sachem, as described by The Sachem Project, is fascinating. “While his relations with the U.S. Navy were tumultuous, he developed 48 to 50 projects, including the ‘collision mats,’ the ‘kite rudder’ … which had potential but none were ever put into production due to the lack of belief and preparedness of the administration.”

With the ending of World War I in 1918, the ship was returned to its owner. The Sachem was sold to a banker, and then later sold to Captain Jacob Martin in 1932 to be used as a party fishing ship: the “Largest, Fastest and Finest Deep Sea Fishing and Moonlight Sails” describes a post card. During the mid 1930s, Martin converted the ship’s engine and coal boilers from steam to diesel.

Shortly after the attack of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, the Navy reacquired the ship in 1942 for use during World War II. She was heavily modified for naval service and rechristened the USS Phenakite.

Manhattan’s sightseeing cruise liner

After being decommissioned in 1944 and again in 1945, the ship was later sold to Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises of New York in 1946. The ship was altered heavily so more passengers could be accommodated on two decks. Named Sightseer, then later Circle Line Sightseer followed by Circle Line V, she was a beloved ship, most likely because of her past war history. After 31 years of service, she was retired from service in 1971.

William Bailey, New York, who spent three summers on her starting in 1969, was hired as a deck hand but quickly turned assistant engineer says, “She carried 490 passengers on two decks. We used to sail the 35-mile trip around Manhattan Island burning 70 gallons of fuel for the two-hour 40-minute trip … at 11 knots, or about 13 miles per hour.”

Bailey says, “Usually we made two sightseeing trips a day, sometimes three when it was busy. During the wintertime, she was laid up,” he says.

Bailey, who recalls every part of the Circle Line V (Sachem), went on to become chief engineer on the Circle Line XV for 35 years.

How the Sachem got to Kentucky

Around 1985, boat enthusiast Robert “Butch” Miller of Cincinnati purchased the rusting hull and managed to get her unearthed from the sludge, renaming her the Sachem.

One fun entertaining fact during this time was the Sachems bow debuted in the background of Madonna’s 1996 video for her song Papa Don’t Preach.

Miller tried unsuccessfully to repair the Sachem while she was docked in New Jersey according to The Sachem Project. Vandalized twice and equipment stolen, he decided it would be better to bring her closer to home.

After running aground during fog on his first attempt, then spending another year in New York, The Sachem Report explains that Miller navigated a new path going 2,600-miles in late 1987—“from the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes, then into Chicago, and down the Mississippi to the Ohio River” to bring her to his property in northern Kentucky in the winter of 1988 after 40 days sailing.

Miller is reported to have spent a large amount of money, and grit, trying to restore the Sachem. But, with her grounded in the mud once again, he simply did not have the finances to save her.

Bailey explains that the Sachem, which had been stripped and retrofitted for the Circle Line, “should still have parts of her original switchboard, which dates to 1902. … I know her layout pretty dang well.”

According to The Sachem Project, Miller died in 2016 and the ship is now owned by Miller’s son.

The Sachem Project was formed in 2015 with the hope to secure and restore the Sachem, then preserve the ship as a floating museum. As the website describes: the group’s members are ex-Circle Line crew, retired Navy, Maritime historians, relatives of ex-captains, locals and enthusiasts.

Long since moored, the Sachem, is now referred to as the “Ghost Ship” and sits on private property. The ship itself is also private property; it is illegal to trespass in order to board the ship.

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