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USS Sachem: Kentucky’s Ghost Ship

There aren’t many historical figures that could claim to have been part of Thomas Edison’s experiments, both World Wars, and a Madonna video. In fact, there may only be one, and it is currently sitting in a creek in Boone County, Kentucky.

“It was referred to as the ghost ship, and it is very creepy looking,” says Hillary Delaney, Local History Associate at Boone County Public Library. “It’s this old hulking mass of metal that’s sitting in this tiny little creek. It looks sort of gray and a little bit spooky. And I quickly learned that it was not that; it had a really rich, interesting history, and so I had to backpedal and learn a little bit more about why this huge boat is stuck in a tiny creek in Boone County.”

The boat was originally named Celt, and its story begins when it was built as a 186-foot luxury yacht in 1901. It was a private vessel with a chic mahogany interior, and its early years were spent cruising around New York Bay and Long Island Sound.

“But when World War I happened, we needed boats,” says Delaney. “The Navy would requisition private vessels, and these boats were a little more agile than some of the bigger military boats…They were worried about the German U-boats. They wanted vessels that could be light enough and agile enough to get around them, and so it was less about them being put into a combat position and more about them doing a recon job and warning other, larger vessels.”

That’s when Celt became USS Sachem.

“Portholes were covered over and the extra plating was put on where it needed to be,” says Sherrianne Swartz of The Sachem Project. “It had depth charges and a single machine-type gun on the top, and all the decking was plated.

“Thomas Edison was on this ship during World War I, doing experiments on submarine detection and mine detection and things like that,” says Swartz. “He actually had a lab on the vessel.”

Sachem – which was rechristened once again as USS Phenakite during World War II – served as a training vessel during both World Wars, and patrolled the Gulf of Mexico. After World War II ended, the veteran craft was repurposed first as a vessel for fishing charters, before being sold yet again to a tour boat company in New York.

“The Circle Line bought it and retooled it to be a tour vessel and be able to hold and seat hundreds of people on the deck,” says Swartz. “That’s where it lived a lot of its life in the 70s and 80s, touring New York Harbor.”

After a long career with The Circle Line, Sachem – which had been renamed Sightseer and then Circle Line V – was essentially used for scrap and abandoned. In the mid-1980s, Cincinnati businessman and boat enthusiast Robert Miller bought it and gave it back its WWI-era moniker. His intention was to restore Sachem and live on it. It was during that restoration that Sachem had its brush with pop-culture fame.

“Robert Miller was working on it to get it running so he could bring it back to Kentucky,” says Swartz. “And all of a sudden, a black limo pulled up.”

The story goes that a production assistant approached Miller and asked if he would allow his boat to be used as the backdrop for a scene in a music video for Madonna’s song, “Papa Don’t Preach.” He agreed, and the Sachem got an MTV cameo before leaving New York for what should have been a return to its origin as a privately owned recreational vessel.

Miller moved Sachem by way The Great Loop: from the Hudson River in New York through the Erie Canal, up into the Great Lakes, then down the Mississippi to the Ohio to where Miller ultimately hoped to make it his home.

“That’s why it was put into the creek,” says Delaney. “It’s sort of a private harbor that way. [Miller] was planning on restoring it, and then things changed. It remained there when the property changed hands.”

What’s left of the Sachem is an enormous skeleton, waterlogged and alternatingly stuck in the muck of a low water level or submerged when the creek floods.

“And every time that happens, it causes a little bit more damage. In five years, you’re not going to pull it out of there, unless you take it in pieces,” says Swartz.

“The vandalism might be the downfall before the elements are,” Swartz adds, referring to the damage left behind by those who trespass on the private property where Sachem is now located.

“You don’t see a boat of that size and purpose here very often, so I think that’s part of the reason people are so fascinated,” says Delaney. “It was used for all these cool things and it has this amazing history, and I think nature took its toll and circumstance took its toll.”

This segment is part of Kentucky Life #2518, which originally aired on July 11, 2020. Watch the full episode.