Along a small tributary to the Ohio River in northern Kentucky, a 115-year-old vessel famously known as the “Ghost Ship” rusts away in its final resting place. It was a Navy patrol vessel in both World Wars, used by Thomas Edison for government experiments, and many years later, was featured in a Madonna music video. Though little of it remains today, the USS Phenakite’s many prolific roles and names over its lifespan make it a fascinating piece of American history, often visited by Cincinnati’s hikers and kayakers.
Its story begins in 1902, when it was built as the Celt, a private yacht by the Pusey and Jones Corporation in Delaware for Manhattan’s famous railroad executive J. Rogers Maxwell. Maxwell was an award winner in the sport of yacht racing, and the Celt was his flagship, often present at racing events. He used it for a few years before selling it to Manton B. Metcalf, another wealthy New Yorker, who changed its name to Sachem.
During World War I, it was rented by the Navy in 1917 to be used as a coastal patrol yacht, renamed the USS Sachem. Submarines were a dangerous new technology that posed a threat during WWI and beyond, so the Navy asked prolific businessman Thomas Edison to help invent a solution, offering him the USS Sachem to conduct government funded experiments in anti-submarine warfare. After a while, the relationship between Edison and the Navy went sour due to their “pigeonholing” of every invention he offered (according to his testimony to a reporter), and Edison cleared out for other business ventures. The Sachem was returned to her owner.
Metcalf sold it to a Philadelphia banker in 1919. In 1932, during the Great Depression, the banker sold it to Captain Jake Martin of Brooklyn, who took advantage of the desperate luxury yacht market caused by the Great Depression to create his own livelihood. He turned the Sachem into a recreational fishing boat and offered $2 rides to anyone willing to pay, usually a combination of partiers and families pooling what little money they had, fishing for their dinners.
In 1942, the Navy reacquired the vessel for the second World War, converted it for service, and renamed it the Phenakite after a highly collectible hexagonal, clear crystal. Soon after, it was again renamed to the USS Phenakite while it patrolled the Caribbean and the Florida Keys. It was transferred for disposal in 1945 and struck from the Naval register in 1946, returned to Captain Jake, and renamed the Sachem once again.
Captain Jake sold it to New York’s Circle Line as tourism increased toward the end of the war, and the Sachem became a tour boat called The Sightseer, later Circle Line V, “America’s Favorite Boat Ride” according to the painted letters along its windows. The lettering on the blue hull is still visible today.
In 1986, Robert Miller made an offer on the weather-beaten, rundown vessel in New Jersey along the Hudson River and purchasing it for $7,500. Largely scrapped out and disassembled, it took ten days to dig it out of the mud and muck in which it was lodged and get it moving again.
The same year, during some repairs in New York City, a producer pulled up in a limo and requested permission to use it for a project. It can briefly be seen in Madonna’s Papa Don’t Preach music video.
Miller kept it on the move to avoid the costly NYC docking fees, but before leaving New York in 1986, he docked it by the Statue of Liberty and filled it with guests for its 4th of July rededication party. After the party was over, he moved it to his property in Northern Kentucky, where the story appears to end.
It was reported scrapped within a decade of leaving the New York City harbor, but was rediscovered not long after.
Though there has been a fundraising campaign to restore the profoundly historic vessel, nothing ever came of it, and the Sachem Project’s website features a myriad of dead links where the plans used to be posted. The Ghost Ship will likely remain in its tranquil resting place in the Kentucky forest for a very long time.