Exploring the Ghost Ship of Petersburg

Concealed by dense forest that invaded the bank of a murky river lies a ship, abandoned for decades. Year after year, eerie green water trickles over the rusting, forgotten piece of history. The rain continues to fall, a muted, metallic cacophony of tip-tap tap-dap tip-tap tap-tap filling the air. Water floods the lower levels, while nature advances, reclaiming what was once a yacht, research station, warship, and tourist vessel—now adismal, corroded shell of its former grandeur.

On April 12, 1902, the luxurious yacht, Celt, was launched. Built by the Delaware-based Pusey and Jones Co., it measured a whopping length of 186 feet. It was used by the movers, shakers, and socialites of the time. The most notable among them was the wealthy railroad tycoon, J. Rogers Maxwell.

2By 1917, however, America had entered the Great War and sought to amass a formidable naval fleet. Celt was purchased and renamed the USS Sachem. Soon, the USS Sachem sailed to the Caribbean and became the mobile research station for the prolific inventor, engineer, and businessman, Thomas Edison. While aboard, Edison conducted experiments for the Navy, attempting naval camouflage and developing torpedo detection technology. To accommodate him, the Sachem was outfitted with advanced instruments, capable of detecting submarines. Despite creating forty-eight new projects, the Navy failed to implement any of Edison’s innovations. Frustrated by their inactivity, he told a friend, “My private opinion is that most of them lack imagination.” On another occasion, he stated, “I made about foty-five inventions during the war, and they pigeonholed every one of them. The naval officer resents any interference by civilians. Those fellows are a close[d] corporation.”

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After the war, the Sachem was returned to its owner, who later sold it to Jacob Miller at the height of the Great Depression. Miller converted the elegant yacht into a fishing boat, which men would pay $2 to take out for a day of fishing, a small fee for the ability to catch fish that could supply days of food to hungry families.

Several years later, the United States was embroiled in World War II. Awaiting its chance to enter the fray, the Sachem sat in a bustling New York harbor, repurchased and renamed by the US Navy, a fresh coat recently applied to the hull. Newly christened the USS Phenakite, the ship set sail for the crystal clear waters of the Florida Keys, where it patrolled the region. On some nights the sailors were close enough to Cuba to see the lights of Havana. While the tropical surroundings appeared idyllic, danger lurked.

Commander Harold Homefield remembers some of the harrowing events that transpired. He told of how one morning he was eating breakfast when an officer ran into the room, pale-faced, shouting that a fellow sailor had fallen overboard. The man was an American who translated for the Russians on board. They rushed out and saw the poor young man struggling in the water. Homefield continues in a grave voice, “Suddenly, he went under and didn’t come up anymore. And so we kept looking way into the night. We were never able to recover the body. It was obvious to us that some shark had gotten him.” Hurricanes were another imminent threat. The Phenakite had a round bottom, which doesn’t provide ample stability in bad weather. Homefield remembers one particular hurricane, in which only a single sailor aboard did not get seasick. “Somehow, we managed to survive. I don’t know how,” he says with a laugh. “I can remember one point we were sixty degrees from center, and looking down into the water. And I said to myself, dear God, don’t send any more water on there. We were…just another few drops, I figured we’d be over…but somehow we managed to get back.”

After the war, the ship was resold to Circle Line, of New York City, and was used as a sightseeing vessel for hundreds of people each day. The Sachem was renamed The Sightseer, and later,  Circle Line V, a name still painted on its deck today. It held up to 500 eager tourists at a time. The tour floated past the Manhattan skyline, the Statue of Liberty, Yankee Stadium, and the Brooklyn Bridge six days a week, from July 6th to labor day. Michael Duffy, the last first mate to sail the Circle Line V, recalls its state, “When I was on it, she still had the staterooms in the bow from her yacht days, and the engine room was like a museum. I know it’s far from that now.”

In the 1980s, it was retired from Circle Line, stripped, and sold to Robert Miller for $7,500. He restored the boat and traveled throughout New York and New Jersey. On July 4, 1986, he carried passengers to see the Statue of Liberty Rededication ceremony. The harbor was cold, the wind biting. Fireworks exploded over the water while Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Whitney Houston, and Frank Sinatra performed. Mikhail Baryshnikov danced; Ronald Reagan gave a speech as the Sachem sat just a few feet away, loyally carrying its awestruck passengers. The fireworks display that night was the largest any American had ever witnessed, and was the grandest pyrotechnic display in the world at the time.

People were fascinated with the Sachem and its old machinery. From his vantage point on the USS Iowa, Reagan remarked of the multitude of ships on Liberty Island, “Perhaps, indeed, these vessels embody our conception of liberty itself: to have before one no impediments, only open space; to chart one’s own course and take the adventure of life as it comes; to be free as the wind—as free as the tall ships themselves.”

The Sachem’s last claim to fame was to the tune of Madonna’s ‘Papa Don’t Preach’; In the 1986 music video of her controversial hit, Madonna is seen kissing actor Alex McArthur, playing her character’s boyfriend, next to the familiar boat. Miller recalled that one day a limousine pulled up and “a guy got out and told me Madonna was shooting a video and wanted to use the boat for background. I couldn’t believe it, but I said ‘Why not?'”

Not too long afterward, the boat left New York City for the last time. Miller and his small crew sailed down the Ohio River at a speed of two miles an hour. It made its final stop in a murky, narrow river on Miller’s plot of land in Kentucky. With the flick of a switch, the engine shut off, the crew went their separate ways, and the boat remained. Miller has since moved to Mexico, but the old Sachem hasn’t moved in over twenty years.

After hearing about the legendary ghost ship, I began my search, which ultimately  led me down several curvy mountain roads, barely wide enough for vehicles to pass each other, to a small northern Kentucky town, where I trekked through the forest on the muddy bank of an unknown river. Trees jutted out of the water, giving it the semblance of a Louisiana swamp. Like an ominous mirage, its shape seemed to emerge from the foliage. Dead trees surrounded the deck, and branches stretched toward the hull but never quite reached. It was beautiful and unsettling. Due to the high water levels caused by the recent rains, the only way to board was by canoe—which I didn’t have, but I hadn’t come this far to be denied permission to board. Cursing my lack of foresight, I took off my shoes and hesitantly waded into the water. I was quickly up to my neck. I dogpaddled to the rear entrance and hoisted myself aboard. Metal creaked and groaned under each cautious footstep. Grass and weeds crept up through the floor and along the handrails. The few interior rooms were bare and rusted. It was hard to imagine this rusted skeleton was ever anything great. The floor was riddled with holes where it had caved in, showing the dark, partially-submerged interior, congested with old machinery and a multitude of pipes covered with dirt and fallen leaves. Carefully, I returned to solid land, where the ground wasn’t at risk of collapsing under me.

After hosting one of the world’s most imaginative inventors, crossing paths with the world’s most powerful pop star, and taking part in both of the Great Wars, it is now nothing more than an abandoned, gloomy curiosity. The USS Sachem is only concerned with the trees sprouting up through its deck in the spring months.

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