USS Sachem: Thomas Edison’s Historic Ghost Ship

Celt, the Ohio River's ghost ship wreck, was known as USS Sachem and Phenakite, and latterly Circle Line V (Image: Pat Bowen)

There are certain places where you might expect to find the rusting remains of a 114-year-old yacht. After all, stories of ghost ships (some fantasy, others true) haunting the world’s oceans are staples of maritime folklore, while the rusting carcasses of wrecks great and small litter the depths and the shallows alike. The sight of one of America’s historic vessels rotting away in the woods alongside the Ohio River might come as a surprise. Yet that’s where Queen City Discovery found the famous steam yacht Celt. Later known as USS Sachem, USS Phenakite and latterly Sightseer and Circle Line V, she’s sometimes been called simply the Ghost Ship.

Update: The vessel is the subject of an ongoing preservation effort called The Sachem Project.

The abandoned USS Sachem aka Circle Line V on the Ohio River outside Cincinnati (Image: Pat Bowen)

The Ohio River flows into the mighty Mississippi, and it’s in a quiet, muddy diversion of one of the Ohio’s tributaries that the Celt rests. The ship is slowly rusting away amid the harsh winters of the American Midwest. The eerily quiet scene offers little indication of this historic vessel’s wartime past.

Celt was built in 1902 by Wilmington, Delaware shipbuilder Pusey and Jones. Her recipient was the wealthy railroad executive J. Rogers Maxwell. The vessel changed hands at least once before the First World War, and was then acquired by the US Navy in the summer of 1917 for service as a coastal patrol yacht under the banner USS Sachem.

The Celt, aka USS Sachem, USS Phenakite, Sightseer and Circle Line V (Image: EOD Combs)

At the time, the Navy was trying to figure out how best to combat a new threat: the submarine. They turned to one of the nation’s most brilliant minds, inventor Thomas Edison, and loaned him the USS Sachem from which to conduct a series of government-funded experiments.

Edison, a firm believer that the United States must be prepared for any military eventuality, had already made clear his opinions on war. He foresaw the terrifying impact mechanised warfare was poised to have on the way that war was waged. In an October 1915 issue of The New York Times, he remarked: “Science is going to make war a terrible thing – too terrible to contemplate. Pretty soon we can be mowing down men by the thousands or even millions almost by pressing a button.”

USS Sachem, formerly the Celt, in Navy service during World War One (Image: US Navy; the Celt, prior to becoming USS Sachem in World War One)

Edison went on to become chairman for the Naval Consulting Board, which oversaw naval research and innovation. By 1917, he had devoted his Eagle Rock, New Jersey laboratory’s research capabilities to detecting gun positions by sound. That’s where the USS Sachem came in.

Edison used the former private yacht in a handful of experiments, outfitting her with various instruments that he hoped would eventually allow the Navy to detect submarines by sight, sound, or by traces left by their magnetic field. He spent 18 months on board the vessel, steaming her from New York to Florida and on to the Caribbean.

Rotting remains of the USS Phenakite, later renamed Circle Line V (Image: Pat Bowen)

A series of letters details his experiments, and the conflict that subsequently arose between Edison and the Navy. None of his 48 inventions and innovations were ever pressed into use, and the acclaimed scientist grew increasingly frustrated. With no settlement in sight, Edison passed the Sachem back to the Navy. When the Great War came to a close, the vessel was returned to her previous owner, Manton B. Metcalf of New York.

Sachem was sold on the following year to Roland L. Taylor, a Philadelphia banker, and in 1932 was converted into a fishing boat under the ownership of Jacob “Jake” Martin of Brooklyn. A decade later, as the Second World War gathered pace, Celt was reacquired by the Navy for $65,000 and pressed back into military service as USS Phenakite.

The rusting hull and superstructure of Circle Line V (USS Sachem/Celt) shipwreck (Image: Pat Bowen)

Once again a coastal patrol vessel, the then-40-year-old yacht spent the war years steaming the waters off the Florida Keys and Long Island Sound. During that time she was used to test sonar systems, but was considered surplus to requirements in the second half of 1945. Put up for disposal in October that year, she returned to civilian life with “Jake” Martin and renamed Sachem, the name she had carried during the Great War.

By 1946, the historic vessel had been added to the Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises fleet in New York City, renamed Sightseer and later Circle Line V (even today, this name is discernible on the former Celt’s rotting hull). The yacht served as a tour boat until 1983, after which she was retired and left to decay alongside a New Jersey pier. While there, Sachem made a brief cameo in the video accompanying Madonna’s 1986 hit ‘Papa Don’t Preach’.

The Ohio River's Circle Line V shipwreck, which once carried Thomas Edison (Image: Pat Bowen; faded name Circle Line V is still visible)

By then, however, she had been bought by Robert Miller, a Cincinnati businessman, who spent some time restoring the ailing vessel before taking her back to the Midwest. After using Sachem to carry a group of friends out into New York Harbor to watch President Ronald Reagan’s re-dedication of the Statue of Liberty, the historic yacht set course for the Great Lakes, steaming down the Mississippi and up the Ohio River toward Petersburg, Kentucky. That’s where her new owner moored her. She hasn’t moved since.

When Queen City Discovery went in search of the vessel several years ago, what they found was little more than a spectre of its former glory, albeit an undeniably photogenic one. Yet the site also discovered that locals had become protective of their ghost ship – and with good reason.

The forlorn remains of USS Phenakite aka USS Sachem near Petersburg, Kentucky (Image: EOD Combs)

There have been reports of scrappers and salvagers making their way into the woods, looking for their chance to profit from the final indignity on the historic and once-grand Celt, aka USS Sachem and Phenakite.

Update: We’re pleased to report that the historic vessel, which is considered to be an important symbol of the United States, is now the subject of a preservation campaign called The Sachem Project. It’s also located on private property and should not be visited without permission.

For more impressive shipwrecks and lost vessels, don’t miss the Soviet submarine graveyard of the Kola Peninsula, or our series covering abandoned warships, from mighty aircraft carriers to battle cruisers.


About the author: Debra Kelly




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