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A yacht built in 1901 for a wealthy railroad executive and later loaned to Thomas Edison to conduct secretive experiments during World War I, not to mention featured in Madonna’s 1986 music video for “Papa Don’t Preach,” today, the USS Sachem sits rusting and landlocked in Taylor Creek in Kentucky, not far from the Ohio River. The only way to legally visit (but not touch or board) the yacht is to kayak or boat to its remote location, which happens to be across the Ohio River from Hollywood Casino in Indiana and less than 2 miles from the Ohio border. Although the yacht is located on private property, the stream itself is a public waterway. 

   Having come across the ruins on Google Earth, and then learning about the yacht’s colorful history, in June of 2023 I decided to take my kayak to the Ohio River to visit the site for myself. Since there is no official guidebook about how to do this, I came up with a plan that ended up working for me, and my safety.  

   The quickest way to boat or kayak to Taylor Creek is to launch from the Indiana side of the Ohio River in Lawrenceburg and then make a b-line across the river (1,700 feet) to its entrance. However, since this is an industrial area (with large barges moving up and down the stream) and an unpredictable part of the Ohio River, this route is not advisable for kayakers, even those with experience. Instead, there is a much safer (yet still fun and challenging) way to reach the ruins. 

Once a luxury yacht, this is all that remains of the USS Sachem, now landlocked on a small stream next to the Ohio River.

Accessing the River in Petersburg    

   The quaint little town of Petersburg, Kentucky is located 1.5 miles downstream from Taylor Creek on the Ohio River. The main road leading into town (Route 3608) dead-ends into a small public boat ramp that also has public parking. My plan was to launch from this location, paddle upstream to the ruins, then return along the same route, only this time going with the stream.     


   After driving about an hour-and-a-half to reach Petersburg, I got on the water at about 10:30 a.m. and began paddling toward Taylor Creek, which is easy to find because it’s the “first creek on your right.” Going against the current with a steady wind in my face made the effort a little challenging, but it wasn’t that bad.    


   At first, I tried to stay somewhat close to the shore but soon learned that, if you get too close, the current (which is constantly pushing towards the sides of the river) slows you down. Instead, stay about 10 or 15 feet away from the shore, which allows you to move with less resistance and takes less energy. There are several private docks that require maneuvering around, but this is as far away from the shore as you’ll have to get, which is probably a good thing!   


   For someone like me, who’s used to kayaking the Stillwater and Great Miami rivers, the Ohio River is a little more intimidating. This is largely because of the size of the river and, more so, the size of the objects that it can carry downstream, including trees and other debris that occasionally sneaks up on kayakers. However, if you remain close to the shore, this doesn’t seem to be a problem. (Speaking of debris, sadly, there’s a lot of plastic and trash lining the sides of the river in this area.) 

   It is fairly easy to reach the ruins of the USS Sachem. (Top left, clockwise)

1. Once in Petersburg, Kentucky, follow the main road into town (Rt. 3608) until it dead ends into the Ohio River. 

2. Park and launch at this location. 

3. Follow the shoreline of the Ohio River for about 1.5 miles until you reach the first creek on your right. 

4. The ruins quickly becomes visible after entering the creek.

Arriving at the Ruin

   I arrived at Taylor Creek at 11:05 a.m. Within a few seconds of paddling into the tree-covered corridor of the creek, I spotted the USS Sachem in the shadows of the thick forest and began making my way towards it. This wasn’t a problem because Taylor Creek, although fairly deep, is (under normal conditions) very calm. This makes it easy to maneuver around the yacht and allows you to get up-close-and-personal views of the vessel without worrying about the current or breaking any rules. If the water level is high enough, it is actually possible to kayak almost 360 degrees around the boat. If not, without getting out of your kayak it still is possible to see the full length and scope of the vessel.

   One of the first things you notice about the yacht (at least in the warmer months) is that not only is the hull rusting out, but the entire boat is being taken over by nature, mostly by grasses and nettles, and probably a few tree seedlings, too. It makes you wonder how long it can last under these conditions and, more so, how did it get here in the first place?  

TOP: The yacht prior to World War I.

BOTTOM: the USS Sachem (renamed as the Circle Line V at the time) during its time as a sightseeing boat in New York City.

(Photos from Wikipedia Commons)

Why is There a “Ghost Ship” on the Ohio River?   

   The complete history (with lots of photographs) of the USS Sachem is available at Here, we learn that the luxury steam yacht (originally named the Celt) was built by one of the most reputable shipbuilders in the U.S. for businessman John Maxwell of Manhattan, New York. Upon completion, it measured 186 feet long, 24 feet wide, 12.5 feet deep and 25 feet high without the masts and smokestack.    


   According to the website, “Designed by Henry C. Wintringham, a famed yacht designer at the time, the magnificent vessel originally contained two deck houses, made of carved mahogany wood and two masts made out of Oregon pine. There were 9 furnished and accessorized staterooms, which were also finished in richly carved mahogany, and had adjoining bathrooms with green tiling and mosaic floor. One was for the steward, another for the cooks, two for the crew, one for the owner, three for the guests, and the captain’s room on the upper deck. The yacht was equipped with modern plumbing and electric power throughout, had ample light and air, electric fans fitted to the portholes, plus in every state room an icebox, a large berth, a chest of drawers, a dressing table and a wardrobe.”   


   The boat was christened and launched on April 12, 1902 and, for years, was used by Maxwell to cruise around New York Bay and Long Island Sound at his leisure. However, Maxwell died in 1910 and his widow (uninterested in boating) sold the Celtic to another wealthy man, Manton Metcalf Sr., who renamed it the Sachem and also used it for leisure.   When World War I broke out, the U.S. Navy began requisitioning private crafts to use in the war effort, with yachts being of high value. (The government paid rent for this service). After being equipped with modern Navy technology and weapons, the newly named USS Sachem began its service on July 3, 1917. It was used as a patrol craft along the East Coast, Florida Keys and sometimes in the Caribbean, but it did not see any action.   One of the biggest concerns for the U.S. Navy during World War I was German U-Boats, which is how Thomas Edison came to know the USS Sachem. Although unsuccessful, Edison was obsessed with coming up with a device that could detect enemy submarines and torpedoes and another that would act as a ship camouflaging system for the Navy. Because he needed an operable “floating laboratory” to test these and other ideas, the Navy loaned him the USS Sachem.     


   After the war, the boat was returned to Metcalf Sr., who then sold it to the “great philanthropist” Roland Taylor, who, along with his good deeds, used the yacht as a rum runner mother-ship during Prohibition. After the Great Depression hit, Taylor sold it to Jacob Martin, who turned it into a popular party fishing boat and was known to entertain hundreds of guests each year.  However, in 1941, duty came calling again when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The Navy once again requisitioned (this time buying it outright) the boat for use in World War II and rechristened it the USS Phenakite. It served mostly on the East Coast and in the Florida Keys and was used to transfer supplies and munitions, as well as to patrol the coast and act as a convoy escort for Allied ships. Again, it did not see any action.    


   After the war, the now neglected ship was purchased back by Martin, who returned its name to Sachem but was unable to come up with the funds to return it to a fishing party vessel. Reluctantly, in 1946 he sold the yacht to Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises of New York, which fixed it up to seat more than 200 people and renamed it the Sightseer and later the Circle Line V. (NOTE: To this day, you can see the word “LINE” on the side of the boat from this name). For decades it carried as many as 3 million sightseers around the harbors of New York, before the company decommissioned it. This marked the beginning of the end for the boat.   


   After sitting partially bogged at a pier in New York City for more than a decade, the now decaying boat was sold to Robert “Butch” Miller in 1984. Miller was a businessman from the Cincinnati area who was interested in purchasing an old yacht and fixing it up, which he proceeded to do.    


   One day in 1986 (a short time after Miller had re-painted the vessel at a dock in New Jersey), a limousine pulled up to his dock and a representative of Madonna got out and asked if they could film a scene for her music video on the boat, which he allowed them to do free of charge.    


   After experiencing several major thefts from his yacht in New York City (including a 2,000 pound anchor and a 900-pound propulsion unit head), Miller became determined to get his boat back to Ohio. However, he was experiencing major engine problems and was unable to fix them. But this didn’t stop him.    


   The website states: “Butch was convinced that to bring the Sachem closer to Cincinnati, he’d sail the ship up the New England coast and down the Saint Lawrence River to get it in Cincinnati. He set up a lawn chair on the upper deck as the helm and a broomstick tied to the propulsion unit controls below, and was able to operate and steer the Sachem at a maximum speed of 8 knots, and at no more than 2 knots against the current. Butch then navigated out of New York Harbor using a set of road maps and in no time ran aground in the fog. The Sachem was towed back into the harbor and was to remain in Newtown Creek (a tributary of the East River in New York), for another year.”   


   In 1986, with the engine back in working condition, and during the symbolic re-lighting of the torch of the Statue of Liberty, Miller took his friends out for one last trip around New York Harbor before undertaking a 2,600-mile journey to Cincinnati that saw Miller sail down the Hudson River, through the Erie Canal and Great Lakes, into Chicago, down the Mississippi River and finally to the Ohio River. It took him 40 days to complete the journey.    


   Miller parked his aging vessel next to his property on Taylor Creek with plans to fix it up and restore it. Unfortunately, budget constraints didn’t allow this to happen. In 1988, the water level of the Ohio River dropped, leaving the boat aground in the muddy bed of the creek (which would cost even more money to remove), where it sits today. Miller (who passed in 2016) eventually sold his land to neighbors and moved to Mexico. In 2009, several kayakers “found” the boat and, from there, as any web search will reveal, the legend of “the Ohio River Ghost Ship” was born, attracting dozens of tourists to Taylor Creek (just like me) each year.

Back Down the River   

   After exploring the yacht and a little more of Taylor Creek, I made my way back to the Ohio River and headed downstream with the wind at my back (a much easier task than earlier) and returned to my vehicle safe and sound and happy with the experience.  
   Visiting an old shipwreck and kayaking on the Ohio River may not be for everyone, but for those who enjoy a little adventure on the water, mixed with a touch of history, or who are looking for unique places to photograph, the USS Sachem Ruins is an interesting place that, although elusive and out-of-the-way, is pretty easy to get to. 
NOTE: Remember to only kayak when water levels are normal and under the safest of conditions, including kayaking with a friend(s), wearing the proper safety equipment and letting someone know what you’re up to before you go.  

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