The Sad Fate of the USS Sachem

For today’s outing, we’re going to step just outside the limits of the State of Ohio and visit a place … well, the place doesn’t exactly have a name, so we’ll just say it’s near Petersburg, Kentucky. Lawrenceburg, Indiana is, technically, a bit closer, but it’s on the other side of the Ohio river. If you’re trying to find the place on a map, just look a short distance downriver from the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana border.

What you’re looking for is called Taylor Creek. It’s a small tributary to the Ohio River, and as such it doesn’t look like much. However, if you start to think there is nothing of any historical value happening in this small, unassuming creek, you’re highly mistaken. For it is here that you will find what remains of the USS Sachem. Or, the USS Phenakite. Then it went back to being the Sachem again. 

To look at it today, it’s little more than a ghost of a ship. But, looks can be deceiving.

Celt – 1902

The sailing yacht was commissioned by J. Rogers Maxwell. It was designed by H.C. Wintringham and built by the Pusey and Jones company of Wilmington, Delaware. The boat was 179 feet and 8 inches long and fitted with a vertical four cylinder triple expansion engine manufactured by John W Sullivan containing two water tube boilers made by Almy of Providence, Rhode Island. At the time, it was an impressive ship with all the latest technology you could think of putting on a yacht.

According to newspaper articles, it then went on to spend the next portion of its life attending various Regattas and boating events and it seems everywhere it went it was gawked at. 

Let’s pause here a second and face an unpleasant truth. Various forms of boating (for lack of a better word) have played some relatively major roles in history, but we only tend to focus on them when there is no other option, and even then a large part of the story often goes ignored. Most of the boats we studied in schools appeared to be little more than tools used to transport people or things across the Atlantic ocean. Or, we may hear about riverboats which transported people up and down The Ohio River (or The Mighty Mississississississippi) for some reason, I guess. 

Yachting is not the type of thing we usually tend to associate with Ohio history, even though over three hundred miles of Ohio’s northern border lies on Lake Erie (and thus a prime spot for yachting). But, that’s besides the point.

Back in 1902, when The Celt first hit the waters, yacht events tended to gather large crowds, much in the same way that The Indianapolis 500 or The Kentucky Derby do today. Participation in the event itself was only for the Uber-Rich, but the crowds they gathered could be legendary.

Between events, yachts like the Celt could be (and often were) hired out to the slightly-rich and used as a party spot or for things like private tours or fishing.

We’re not totally sure how much of this the owners of The Celt partook in, but from newspaper reports, it’s pretty clear that it was, at the time at least, a fairly popular yacht. 

Then, Thomas Edison Enters The Picture…

In 1917, the yacht was acquired by The United States Navy and recommissioned the USS Sachem (SP 192) who used it as a Costal Patrol Yacht. In the Early Days of The Great War (the one we now refer to as World War I) the yacht continued doing what it seemed to enjoy doing, making voyages up and down the Atlantic coast. Only, this time, rather than helping people celebrate their weddings or whatever, they were looking for enemy boats. If it found any, there’s no record of it. 

Then one day, Thomas Edison saw the boat and thought it would be the perfect thing to perform some science experiments on. By the time the war was over, Edison had performed countless experiments on forty-eight potential gadgets which he believed could do things like turn the boat quickly when a torpedo was headed its way … or, the ability to see enemy vessels in fog or submarines in murky waters … a searchlight to use underwater … a possible way to fix toxic gas coming from smokestacks … a way to detect hydrogen … and while some of these experiments were a success, he wasn’t able to invent a way to make the US Navy all that excited about any of his inventions as they took a pass on them all.

After the war and Edison’s experiments were over, it was bought and sold to various owners until it was purchased in 1932 by Jacob Martin who converted it into a fishing excursion boat. However, World War II was right around the corner and once again the yacht was called into service (as the USS Phenakite) where it travelled up and down the US coastline looking for foreign vessels, namely german U-boats. Even though the boat was now equipped with the latest and greatest in modern wartime technology, once again it failed to spot a single german U-boat. However, it did test some new SONAR technology so at least some good came from that.

Following the war, the ship was decommissioned and ultimately returned to its former owner who sold it to the Circle Line of New York City (and renamed The Sightseer or Circle Line V) where it was used as a tourboat until the early part of the 1980s. By then, the ship was really startint to show its age and let’s face it – there were a lot of newer, flasier boats that people wanted to use instead. So, it stayed around New York Harbor for some time while its owner tried to figure out what to do with it. 

At long last, he was contacted by a buyer in Cincinnati who expressed an interest in obtaining it. However, it needed to be fixed up a bit. Just as the owner was finishing this final task, there would be one final surprise that would ultimately take the Sachem into a place it had never really been before. 

How To Star In A Music Video:

Have you ever heard a legend about some wannabe actor or actress who was doing some tedious menial job when one day a bigtime Hollywood producer came along and saw them and said, “I want you to be in my movie.”? Sure, there are a few (barely a few) people in Hollywoodland who sorta-kinda fit this bill … but, would you believe that’s what happened to our Boaty McBoatface here?

It’s true.

So, this famous (some would prefer infamous) pop princess was running around New York City filming a music video for her next big hit – a danceable track about a young girl who falls in love with a guy (played by Alex McArthur) her father doesn’t approve of. So, they have to secretly meet and go on some dates where the girl’s father (played by Danny Aiello) won’t see. Well, they meet one night and for some reason find themselves on a boat, sitting side by side. The camera pans over to an old couple, who react as if it’s good to see two young people so in love. The two young lovebirds get up and start dancing next to a string trio that is playing on the boat for … reasons, I guess. 

That boat was the The Sachem.

The singer was Madonna. 

The video was for her song “Papa, Don’t Preach”.

A Sad Death After An Exciting Life

Soon the Sachem began it’s unceremonious trip from The New York Harbor to The Ohio River, and eventually Cincinnati. No sooner than the owner arrives in town, he learns his buyer isn’t interested anymore and he pulls out of whatever deal the two had come up with. Now, the owner is in a bit of a jam. He’s got an old boat that nobody wants anymore, in Cincinnati of all places, he spent a bunch of money to haul the thing to Ohio, and doesn’t really want to spend the money to haul the thing all the way back.

So, he finds a spot in a small tributary off the Ohio River to store the boat until he figures out what to do next.

And, to make a long story short – the thing is still there, slowly rotting and falling apart.

Now, I do feel a need to warn you of something here. Yes, the boat is on (or, in) the water, so therefore technically it’s in a public-use area. However, all the land surrounding the yacht is private property and over the years have let it known they don’t appreciate strangers trespassing trying to get a glimpse of the thing. 

The best thing to do, according to several people who have done this, is to rent a kayak and approach from the Ohio River.

Or, in my opinion, the best thing to do is to just stay home and look at the photos and videos other people have taken. They’re not too hard to find on the internet.

An Afterthought

When I first started writing this post, I didn’t think it was going to be more than a paragraph or two. The story, as I originally heard it, was that there was an old boat from both the world wars that Madonna used in a music video left to the elements just off the Ohio River. What more was there to say? Then, when I started looking into it – I was surprised to discover how much information was out there … and, at the same time, how much wasn’t.

In its pre-war days as the Celt, I found a lot more old newspaper records than I had truly thought possible. The day it debuted back in 1902, the Celt was one heck of an impressive ship – in part because it looked beautiful, but also because it utilized new steam technology that few people had ever seen before. 

After this, I expected news coverage to dwindle, but I was wrong. I found countless articles where the Celt was mentioned, either as part of some regatta or even just to say that the Celt was docked in town today and everyone said what a beauty it was.

And I wanted to know why. If the boat had been owned by Theodore Roosevelt (who had just been sworn into the American Presidency) … or, someone like Andrew Carnegie or James Cash Penney (Yes, that was his name, but perhaps you know his store better – JC Penney’s) or Miller Reese Hutchison (who had just invented the Hearing Aid) … then that would make sense. 

I came to learn that at that time, boating events were kind of like how sporting events are today – it was quite the spectacle, drawing in large crowds, people would bet on the results of the races, and if you were wealthy (and lucky) enough to have a yacht in these races – that was enough to make you something of a celebrity. 

Throughout history, boats aren’t mentioned nearly as much as they probably should be … and most of the times we know about them was because (a) something went wrong and a lot of people died, or (b) there really isn’t a way to explain history without mentioning the boat. For example – we know that a bunch of people crossed the Atlantic coming to The New Country in vessels like the Mayflower, or the Nina, the Pinta, and The Santa Maria – but how much were we actually told about those ships? And how many other ships were there that we don’t know the names of? Hundreds? Thousands?

Otherwise, history only mentions boats when something goes horribly wrong – like, the sinking of The Titanic or whatever the heck occurred on The Mary Celeste. 

Anyway, right here, just a stone’s throw away from Cincinnati, we have a boat. It saw both World Wars (hopefully there won’t be a third). Thomas Edison used it for science experiments. And, even though none of the new inventions he came up with on the thing were ever sold to the US Navy, his science experiments did pave the way for some of the technology that we use today. And yet, this boat sits, abandoned, unloved, and left to the elements.

It also goes to show you that history can happen anywhere. Sometimes, it’s even hidden away, right around the corner, just waiting for the right person to come along and see it and start asking questions. It makes me wonder what else is out there just waiting to be noticed.

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