How a 116-Year-Old Ship That Survived 2 World Wars Ended Up in a Kentucky Creek

Known by many names, the now-abandoned vessel that lies off in a creek off the Ohio river is sometimes simply called the Ghost Ship. BrittanyMosley/Shutterstock

Launched 10 years before the Titanic, a now-abandoned ship rusting in a creek in Kentucky had quite the interesting career.

Christened the Celt in 1902, the 186-foot-long ship was a racing steamer and a luxurious yacht. A change of ownership brought a change of names and the Sachem (later the USS Sachem) was a warship that powered through both world wars, sometimes with Thomas Edison aboard while he did wartime experiments. It went on to become a fishing and party boat, and later a sightseeing ship that ferried nearly 3 million people around New York.

The steam yacht was the Celt, prior to World War I.
This steam yacht was called the Celt prior to World War I. U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Through the years, the popular ship was the USS Phenakite, Sightseer and Circle Line V. But sometime in the 1980s, the once-majestic vessel began to fall into disrepair. The ship was purchased by Robert Miller, who hoped to restore it and eventually make it his home.

According to the Sachem Project, a group hoping to save the ship, Miller was a Cincinnati-area businessman who had a passion for boats. He had been looking for more than eight years for an old steam yacht when he stumbled on an ad for the Sachem. He went to New York City to see the boat in person.

"The ship had suffered neglect; was not in running condition, parts leaking, rust, dirt accumulated over the deck, rainwater flooding the lower deck," the project reports. "However, there was no other old steam yacht anywhere. Robert Miller wished to restore it for personal leisure use, whatever it would take. So he offered $7,500 and promised to move the ship in a week."

Out of the muck, but not out of the woods

Reportedly, it took Miller more than 10 days to drag the abandoned ship out of the Hudson River muck. He drove back and forth from Ohio to New York each weekend to renovate the vessel, newly renamed the Sachem.

At one point, while Miller was working on the ship in New Jersey, a representative for Madonna showed up and asked if the pop singer could shoot part of a music video on board. Scenes from her "Papa Don't Preach" hit were shot on the ailing vessel.

But restoration didn't go smoothly. Vandals targeted the ship, stealing Miller's tools, engine parts and even the ship's 2,000-pound anchor. After several more frustrating months, Miller made the 2,600-mile journey from New York to Cincinnati, with a crew that consisted of his wife, a couple of friends and an old Afghan hound. The trek took 40 days.

A grassroots push to save history, before it's too late

Miller and his team anchored the Sachem on a small creek, a tributary off the Ohio River, on his property in Petersburg, Kentucky, which lies about 25 miles west of Cincinnati. But the water level dropped so much that the ship was left mired in a few feet of muddy water, as the video above shows. Miller didn't have the funds to move the ship again, so restoration stopped. Miller eventually moved away and the ship became the property of the land's new owner.

Somewhere along the way, interest in the Sachem resurfaced. Kayakers started paddling down the creek to find the forgotten vessel and hikers started visiting the abandoned ship with so much history. The newfound attention may have revitalized interest in the Sachem, but it didn't make life easier for the new owner who had inherited the ship when he purchased Miller's property.

The owner has said in interviews that the rusting, massive boat is a liability because visitors could hurt themselves on and around the rusty wreck. He's considering selling the boat for scrap.

But the new attention has also spurred the creation of the Sachem Project, a group that wants to prevent the ship from being destroyed and to restore it as a museum. The group is comprised of Ex-Circle Line Crew members, retired Navy members, maritime historians, relatives of former captains of the ship, locals and ship enthusiasts.

As the group states on its website: "Only a few are daring to bring back the Sachem to its original majesty. We are those. We are all different, like the many destinies of the ship, united by the same objective: Saving the cultural heritage of the Sachem."