The Ghost Ship of Cincinnati: John Rogers Maxwell’s spectral remains and lifetime of adventure

Ship2I have spent a lifetime climbing in and around human creations that once felt timeless and permanent in a historical context only to erode away into nothing glimpsed one last time by only a few curious eyes.  The process is actually remarkably fast.  I have seen towns die, homes vanish, and entire cultures philosophically collapse on themselves.  I have seen companies come and go, family dynasties raise and fall and the creations of mankind flourish then founder.  I have explored the empty carcasses of many old homes, cars, and cemeteries to study the static patterns of previous societies so to come to conclusions about the direction of our current one.  Many of my opinions about all manners of discussion were formulated in these explorations.  My mild obsessions with a giant race of men who once lived in Ohio, or the supernormal happenings in and around some of the darkest corners of our planet are rooted in observed fact and come from putting my hands and eyes on a flickering light from the past one last time before it leaves our eyes forever.  So before such a thing happened to a unique part of our history residing directly across from Lawrenceburg, Indiana nearly across from the Hollywood Casino, I had to go with my daughter to visit, and chronicle the mysterious “Ghost Ship” which is quickly fading into history.  See the video of our trip here:   

The ship really isn’t a ghost at all, but rather was a luxury yacht named the Celt and has a real life history that is nothing short of remarkable.  It was best known during World War II as The Phenakite, a training vessel designed to detect and destroy submarines.  So the story of how it ended up in a tributary of the Ohio River is a complex one that carries with it the winds of dreams contemplated by the many thousands which graced its decks.  From the bow of that ship enemies were destroyed, ruckus parties were conducted, beasts were tamed, musical careers were launched, and America celebrated the re-lighting of the Statue of Liberty by President Ronald Reagan.  Through all of its owners, the now known “Ghost Ship” all shared a sense of permanence where they believed that their lives, culture, and history were as steady as that ship.  They believed they could change its name but that the thing itself would always be there—but as the evidence of that old relic shows—nothing lasts unless it is maintained.  If things fall into disrepair they end and that goes for all things created by mankind including the culture of the countries they inhabit.

The Phenakite was built 1902 as the yacht Celt by Pusey and JonesWilmington, Delaware, for J. Rogers Maxwell, a railroad executive. It was launched on 12 April 1902.

Shortly after the United States entry in to the First World War, it was acquired by the U.S. Navy 3 July 1917. It was placed in service as USS Sachem (SP 192) on 19 August 1917 and used as a Coastal Patrol Yacht.[1] During its Navy service, it was loaned to inventor Thomas Edison who conducted government-funded experiments with it as a submarine killer.

After the end of World War I, the Sachem was returned to her owner, Manton B. Metcalf of New York, 10 February 1919. It was sold to Philadelphia banker Roland L. Taylor. It was resold in 1932 to Jacob “Jake” Martin who converted it into a fishing boat and adventure vessel.  For $2.00 Jake would take anybody anywhere they wanted to go in the Caribbean.

It was reacquired by the Navy on 17 February 1942 for $65,000 and converted for naval service at Robert Jacobs Inc., City Island, New York. It was commissioned as USS Phenakite (PYc-25), 1 July 1942 at Tompkinsville, New York and patrolled the waters off of the Florida Keys as a training vessel for sonar reading. It was decommissioned to undergo modifications and placed back in service 17 November 1944. It was used for testing sonar systems before being placed out of service on 2 October 1945 at Tompkinsville, and transferred to the Maritime Commission for disposal on 5 November 1945.[1]

The vessel was then returned to her previous owner, Mr. J. Martin of Brooklyn, NY and renamed Sachem on 29 December 1945. It was struck from the Naval Register 7 February 1946. It was subsequently resold to the Circle Line of New York City and renamed Sightseer, but was later renamed Circle Line V. It served as a tour boat until 1983. It appeared in Madonna‘s Papa Don’t Preach video in 1986.

It was purchased by Robert Miller in 1986.Ship 4

The Circle Line V was reportedly scrapped in 1984 but was found abandoned outside of Lawrenceburg, Indiana, on the Kentucky side of the Ohio River, where it has been since 1987.[1] It is a popular destination for kayak enthusiasts in the Cincinnati area and is commonly referred to as “The Ghost Ship”[2] [3]

In March 2014 it was the subject of a story on the Internet comedy news podcast Broken News Daily.  CLICK THE LINK to see a condensed visual history of the vessel.

It is one thing to read about these kinds of things, it is quite another to put your hands on them.  When you see it with your own eyes, it is quickly determined how something can be lost to the slipping sand of an hourglass into the context of historical documentation.  History is often lost because that same hourglass of time measurement is turned upside down just to keep the sand moving leaving all the patterns of the previous measurement lost forever.  The Phenakite (Ghost Ship) is only 110 years old, but within a few years it will be gone only memorialized by articles like this one and a few fragmented documents.  This erosion of history is happening right in front of our faces and actually right near a resort complex that houses tens of thousands of people and moves millions of dollars of economic activity per year—but is invisible to the rest of the world.

The ironic story of The Phenakite is that it has had one of the most glorious pasts that a man-made creation can have, it has known celebrity, it has known two World Wars, it has been around and done it all and even with all that prestige, it is rotting away in plain sight little known to the rest of the world.  The same could be said of the Malden Island mysteries, my Giants of Ohio and their bones which sit as objects of curious speculation in private collections and museum back rooms not fitting in well with the fossil history of our known past.  The crystal pyramids sitting on the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean.  The knowledge that North America was actually settled by the Chinese during the Ming Dynasty and that most of what we think of as Native Americas were a result of these voyages which took place well before the Europeans had equal naval ability.  As magnificent as the yacht named Celt was in 1902 built for John Rogers Maxwell, Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Central Railroad of New Jersey, and President of the Atlas Portland Cement Company, it was only a flash in the mind of history which had been audaciously neglected by those same sands of time which vanish all too quickly by minds unable to behold the meaning of that history.   The yacht like its original owner who had been a director of many railroads and other companies, and an enthusiastic and widely known yachtsman died suddenly on December 10th 1910 at his home on 78 Eighth Avenue, Brooklyn, of cerebral apoplexy.  Even though the yacht would go on to embark on a century of further adventures it was the heart and will of John Rogers Maxwell that breathed the life of creation into the future “ghost ship,” which began to end the moment that creator died.Ship3

And this is the same story no matter what the topic—history is a poor caretaker of itself no matter how proud it may be of its accomplishments.  Without the efforts of a dreamer and producer, all the achievements accomplished in a lifetime vanish in less than an instant.  Without question Robert Miller was a man like Maxwell and had intentions of giving the old yacht new life but those goals fell short on the shores of the Ohio River.  The ship became a ghost of its former owner even during its heyday as the life which was breathed into it vanished just as the history which followed soon will as well.  This is the common thread that can be seen in virtually anything that is created—once that driving force is gone, the history of that object, culture, or living thing begins to end.  Once the drive of a producer leaves the life of anything—decline back into the realm of nothingness begins.  The force which drives history is not museums, academic scholarship, or text books—but the life of producers which advance the story for future generations so long as neglect does not enter into the equation.  For The Phenakite history stopped once it was dropped off in the tributary of the Ohio River by Miller who obviously had a change in his ability to preserve the craft.  But the process of that ghostly decline actually began the moment John Rogers Maxwell died in his home after a life lived well, and fully for The Phenakite and all its service to the nation, Thomas Edison, Madonna and Ronald Reagan’s Statue of Liberty lighting party in 1986 were all second-handers to the creation of a railroad tycoon.  Without him, none of the magnificent history centering on The Phenakite would have happened and because of him, there is at least a history to come to an end quietly and without much notice across from Lawrenceburg, Indiana.

In tomorrow’s article, I will cover in more detail the present owner, Robert Miller and explore what might be done to save this ship from being lost to history forever. Ship1

 For more on this topic see my article on Kerr City.  CLICK HERE. For further reading and discovery about the Cincinnati Ghost Ship see the links below:


Rich Hoffman


9 thoughts on “The Ghost Ship of Cincinnati: John Rogers Maxwell’s spectral remains and lifetime of adventure

  1. I love the article and the history behind this ship is amazing . This ship has had a remarkable life and its a shame to see it rotting away in a dried up creek when it should be in a museum somewhere. I just happened to stumble across another article on this ship while trying to check the weather in the Dayton , Ohio area. My son and I had came down from Michigan to the Dayton area for the weekend and when I read about this ship I just had to see it . These kinds of things have always interested me and when I told my son of the “Ghost Ship” we might be able to catch a glimpse of it was all he could talk about that weekend . I was there the day you shot these pics. It was my son and I that showed up while you and your daughter were photographing the boat. Is there an online album of your photos somewhere? I will continue to follow the ship and hopefully one day it will be moved and put on display or even put back into service.


    1. My daughter is a professional photographer and is editing the photos as we speak. She will have some fantastic pictures in a few days. I will put a link up as an answer to this when she does.

      Good to meet you that was quite a nice adventure.


      1. That would be awesome. Thanks in advance for that. I wanted to go up on the ship but didn’t know how safe it would be trying to get my six year old up there and to be honest I think he was a little creeped out. I was actually relieved to see you and your daughter down there as I was feeling a little nervous about “sneaking” down to check it out. It was one of the coolest things I have ever seen in my life though. Not something I think will be repeated the rest of my life and hopefully something my son will remember for years to come. Thanks for sharing your time with the boat with us.


  2. I did get a chance to check out the second article and it is also good as are your daughters blog and photos. Thank you very much for sharing them. I wish I had crossed the creek and got a look at the ship from the other side. Looks like there was a lot less foliage in the way from that side offering a much better view of the ship. I am hoping I can return to the ship one day and board it. Maybe when my son is a bit older. It’s only about a 5 hour drive from where we live in Michigan


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