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The “Ghost Ship”

The slow, choppy waters erratically splash up against the obstruction, banging an offbeat rhythm onto an island of rusted steel. As the Ohio River flows toward the Mississippi, its waters make their way through the American Midwest. Roughly 25 miles downstream from Cincinnati, some of the water diverts to a gap on the southern shore into a creek and up against a ship that seems to have docked for the last time. It’s a vessel that fought in two World Wars, served as a yacht, set the scene in a pop star’s music video, carried one of the world’s greatest minds, and shuttled tourists around the nation’s largest city – all before it found itself left to be forgotten by time and history in the murky waters.

It’s been over a century since the ship seen here was originally launched in 1902. It’s a vessel that has been known by many names. The most recent one, however, can still be found in the faded paint on its hull: “Circle Line V.” When Matt spotted the ship resting quietly in the creek below the road, it was quite a sight to see—even more so once we got to the shoreline and saw things up close. Actually seeing a “shipwreck” was impressive enough, but the full gravity of the ship’s significance hadn’t quite set in and wouldn’t until after we were gone.

I’m certainly not the first person to find the ship, nor am I the first to photograph it. The internet is rife with stories of kayakers paddling up to it, geocachers hiding mementos in the wreckage, and shotgun wielding locals who aren’t afraid to fire at trespassers. I had known about the vessel for a while, but I never seemed to find the time to go looking for it until recently. In all the years I’ve been exploring, documenting, and photographing abandoned places, the ghost ship known as the Circle Line V is by far one of the coolest things I’ve seen with my own eyes and through a lens.

To understand why the Circle Line V is significant and just how the hell it ended up in a creek near Cincinnati, we need to start at the beginning, in Wilmington, Delaware. On April 12, 1902, the ship was launched as the Celt. Commissioned as a luxury yacht by a railroad executive, she was 186 feet long and steam powered. After changing owners, she was renamed the Sachem.

 

When World War I broke out in 1914, Germany’s only hope of defeating the British Empire was dependent upon cutting supply lines from North America. German submarines known as U-Boats patrolled the Atlantic hoping to sink as many allied shipments as possible, attempting to starve Britain’s economy and industry. In 1917, the Germans adopted a policy of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. Believing that the United States would soon enter the war, German U-Boats began targeting any and all vessels suspected of carrying supplies to Britain. For the first time in modern warfare, the submarine played a key role. It was a deadly and effective weapon that could strike without any kind of warning and was nearly impossible to counter. As America prepared to join the war on the Allied side, the US Navy realized that they needed to find new ways to counter the below water threat, both in the war zone and at home.

The Navy began renting small, fast private craft that could potentially outmaneuver and spot enemy submarines, supplementing the American fleet both on supply convoys and for protection in homeland harbors. In July of 1917, the Navy acquired the Sachem and dubbed it the USS Sachem (SP 192). The ship was outfitted with depth charges to sink submerged U-Boats and with machine guns to counteract torpedoes. Despite President Wilson’s usage of H.G. Wells’ famous phrase, “The war to end war,” the United States government realized that submarines would be a threat in not only the current conflict but also any future ones. New and creative ways to defend against them needed to be developed, so they turned to Thomas Edison.

Edison was one of the world’s most profound inventors and businessmen. Dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” many of Edison’s inventions came to greatly influence the industrial world – most notably the advent of modern electricity. He seemed to be the perfect guy to come up with a creative way to destroy submarines, but in order to do that he needed a ship. So the Navy gave him the USS Sachem.

Edison’s use of the USS Sachem is confirmed by letters from his wife to various correspondents while aboard the ship. The letters are on record at Rutgers University. Edison would use the vessel to conduct experiments around New York Harbor before eventually sailing it to Key West, Florida, and the Caribbean.

– The USS Sachem undergoing dry dock repairs in Key West, Florida during the time of Edison’s research. Image via Navsource.org.

Edison’s relationship with the navy was tumultuous. In a 1923 article, he told a newspaper reporter that the Navy “pigeon-holed” every invention he offered. The war ended in November 1918, and so did Edison’s funding. He returned to his other business ventures, and the Navy returned the Sachem to the owner they had been renting it from.

As the post-World War I years went on, the Sachem changed hands a few times, eventually becoming a recreational fishing vessel under the command of Captain Jacob “Jake” Martin of Brooklyn, New York.

– Captain Martin circa 1925. According to the original caption, he was preparing to shoot a shark. It is unconfirmed, but assumed that the vessel seen here is the Sachem, given that it seems to be the only boat Captain Martin owned on record at the time. Image via: Getty Images.

Martin had taken advantage of the Great Depression when he purchased the Sachem in 1932. Luxurious yachts that had once been available to only the upper crust of society could now be purchased at ridiculously low prices. Like many captains, Martin opened up his recently purchased ship to anyone willing to pay $2 to board it. Some came to party; others came to catch fish in order to feed their families.

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– Forward view of the ship in its current abandoned state. ©2013 Ronny Salerno

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack against the United States at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The next day, America declared war on Japan. On December 11, Germany and Italy declared war on America, to which the United States reciprocated. America’s involvement in World War II had begun. Faced with an even greater U-Boat threat than before, America was once again in need of ships that could guard the home front. The Navy rented the Sachem a second time, re-outfitted it with armaments, and christened it the USS Phenakite (PYc-25) in July 1942.

The Phenakite acted as a training and patrol vessel. Anti-submarine tactics had advanced drastically since Edison had been onboard. By now, sonar was in practical use. During the day, the Phenakite would take on sailors training to use the sonar equipment; by night, she patrolled Key West harbor. Eventually the ship was assigned to guard Long Island Sound in New York. She served the rest of the war there before being returned to Captain Martin and reverting to the original name of Sachem.

– The Sachem in 1949 after being renamed as SightseerImage via Navsource.org.

Right before the war’s end in the summer of 1945, several tourism cruise lines merged to form Circle Line Sightseeing Cruises in New York City. Anxious to add more boats to the new company, the Sachem was purchased from Captain Martin and became the flagship of the new Circle Line fleet. The Sachem was renamed Sightseer. Over the years, Circle Line and its vessels provided millions of visitors with tours around New York City. At some point, Sightseer came to be known as the Circle Line V, and she received the paint scheme that can be seen faded on the abandoned ship’s hull today.

ABOVE: Circle Line V sailing in New York City. Note the vessel’s paint scheme (Image via Navsource.org).

BELOW: Circle Line V as it appears today, its paint scheme still visible even after being abandoned for over two decades.

© 2013 Ronny Salerno

ABOVE: Circle Line V in better days cruising New York’s East River (Image via: Navsource.org).

BELOW: The Circle Line V name can still be seen on the abandoned boat.

© 2013 Ronny Salerno

Eventually the Circle Line company’s operation grew to a demand that the Circle Line V could no longer meet. Sometime in the early 1980s, with the ship having been in continued use for nearly eight decades, she was cut from the Circle Line fleet and left at an abandoned pier in New Jersey. Circle Line Sightseeing Tours still exists today, operating nine vessels, several bus tours, and accommodating over 2,000 visitors daily.

– Circa 1983 photograph of the Circle Line V resting along an abandoned New Jersey pier after being sold off by Circle Line Tours.  Image via Navsource.org.

Enter Robert Miller in 1986. A Cincinnati resident, Miller was looking to buy an old steam yacht and had come across the Circle Line V sitting idle in New York’s Hudson River. The vessel’s owner at the time sold it to Miller for $7,500. Miller told The Kentucky Enquirer (an article that is now behind a paywall, but freely viewable via The Wisconsin State Journal) in 2011 that it took him ten days to repair the boat and get it seaworthy again. One day while working on the ship, a limousine pulled up to the dock. A representative of Madonna greeted him, asking to use the Circle Line V as a background element in one of the wildly popular pop star’s upcoming music videos. The ship ended up having a cameo in the video for Madonna’s single “Papa Don’t Preach.”

– Screen cap of Madonna’s “Papa Don’t Preach” music video. The Circle Line V‘s bow is viewable at the left. The ship is clearly identifiable in one brief scene from the video. If you can stomach just how bad of a song it is, you can see for yourself on YouTube.

On July 4, 1986, President Ronald Reagan symbolically relit the torch of the Statue of Liberty at the iconic landmark’s rededication ceremony. The day was celebrated with musical performances and a massive fireworks display. Miller and his Circle Line V were there, loaded up with partygoers enjoying the celebration. Not long after, Miller planned to bring the ship back to a plot of land he had purchased in Northern Kentucky, just outside of Cincinnati. It would prove to be the ship’s final voyage.

– One of the ship’s decks. © 2013 Ronny Salerno

Miller and a small crew navigated the ship from New York City, through the Great Lakes, down the Mississippi River and onto the Ohio River. About 20 miles west of Cincinnati, he turned the boat down a creek into a small tributary of the Ohio on his property. The vessel has sat in that spot ever since.

– Stairs that once lead to one of the sightseeing decks. © 2013 Ronny Salerno

Matt and I headed down a rural road. As we got closer to the GPS mark, I told Matt to keep an eye out. Before I could even finish my sentence, he exclaimed, “There it is!” Down in the woods off the road we could see the abandoned ship.

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– The ship as seen from the rear.  ©2013 Ronny Salerno

We weren’t sure who owned the boat or the land on which it sat. The internet stories of armed locals who readily discharged their weapons at curious explorers seemed exaggerated. Nevertheless, parking the car alongside the road would’ve been pretty obvious, and we weren’t there to bother anyone. We drove up to some of the nearby houses, knocking on doors in an attempt to get permission to go down to the boat. No one was home at any house we tried, so we decided to kill some time across the river in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

– The bow of the ship. ©2013 Ronny Salerno

Looking across the river at where we had just been, we noted just how wide the river actually was. With us having no experience kayaking, the thought of paddling across the body of water in a tiny boat seemed crazy. Much respect to those who have kayaked to the ship before.

We eventually headed back in the car to see if anyone had come home and spoke with a few locals who weren’t sure who owned the boat or property, but they didn’t mind if we went down to see it after we explained our intentions to photograph the ship and write an article. Apparently, there had been problems recently with scrap thieves attempting to cut metal off the abandoned ship.

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– Trees have started to grow around the ship. ©2013 Ronny Salerno

Even without knowing the ship’s vast history, it’s a pretty awe inspiring sight to take in. We knew it had served in two wars and had been a tourism boat, and we had heard rumors about Thomas Edison using it, but we hadn’t done much research before looking for it.

– Aft view of the ship. ©2013 Ronny Salerno

There, right before us in the quiet woods, sat a 186 foot long ship. The water flowing in from the river smacked up beside it as it sat partially submerged and listing to one side. The engine is long gone and silent, any ornamentation is now absent, but the faded letters of its Circle Line V title could still be seen on the hull.

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– According to those who live nearby, scrap thieves have been a problem as they’ve tried to cut metal from the ship’s hull. Here, a discarded cut of metal lays on the ground. ©2013 Ronny Salerno

We walked along the muddy riverbank, searching for a way to cross the creek or walk onto the ship, but we came up short. The water was too deep, the temperature too cold, and the camera too expensive to risk a day of swimming. We had to enjoy our view of the boat from land.

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© 2013 Ronny Salerno

The ship has been sitting there for so long that vegetation is growing on its decks. The porthole glass has been busted, and rusted out stairs that once lead to a sightseeing deck now lead nowhere. She has sat abandoned and decaying in these murky waters for nearly 27 years.

© 2013 Ronny Salerno

© 2013 Ronny Salerno

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© 2013 Ronny Salerno

© 2013 Ronny Salerno

As rain falls outside the window of where I write this article, I know that it’s also falling on the ghost ship, further rusting it and contributing to the water flowing around it. 110 years since the boat launched in Delaware, it came to a final resting place in a creek outside of Cincinnati. After countless passengers, two World Wars, and ferrying millions of tourists on sightseeing jaunts, the ship has become a sight to behold. It is a symbol of history in a condition that doesn’t seem fit for the story behind it. After everything the Celt/Sachem/Phenakite/Sightseer/Circle Line V saw in its day, it’s now something for us to see, to marvel at—a ruin of the past hidden on a creek.

© 2013 Ronny Salerno

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