Saving a Cincinnati ‘Ghost Ship’: History and methods of resurrecting the ‘Sachem’

This is part two of a story previously articulated. CLICK HERE TO SEE PART ONE.

At first a visit I took to the “Ghost Ship” of Cincinnati was just to confirm that it was there and provide my daughter with an interesting subject to photograph, as she is a professional photographer. But after doing a little research it became quickly evident that there was more to the story of this ancient vessel rusting away in a tributary of the Ohio River across from Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The story of the ship was a compelling one describing a century of exotic adventures. It was certainly an oddity that such a historic vessel would end up beached in a completely foreign setting from the Caribbean Sea where it one time roamed. Upon seeing the ship after doing the research of its history it was easy to conclude that the Sachem had a tenacity which commanded respect and was in the fight for its life surrounded by a hostile forest environment that is trying desperately to denigrate it from rust to soil once again. So the trip my daughter and I took became more than a photographic voyage into the wooded areas of Northern Kentucky, it became an investigation into the viability of actually rescuing once again the ship that D’Andrea LaRosa is trying to raise money to save through her Lawrenceburg Art Foundation seen at the link below. The current owner Robert Miller out of money for many years now is in Mexico and had saved the ship once before but appears to not have the resources to do it again, leaving us to contemplate the condition of the ship during July when the water level was low and the ship could be seen from all angles feasibly. The walk about that ship can be seen in the video below with a visual commentary on what we were seeing.

Looking into the life more of Robert Miller to discover if there was any way of helping the guy finish the restoration project of the Sachem which he so boldly attempted, I ran across the article below describing the conditions of the first rescue from the scrap yard as far back as 1985—which went into great detail of how the ship ended up from New York to Lawrenceburg on the Ohio River. Since the article is so old I am including it in its entirety for preservation purposes but link the original article following the text. It is quite a story describing a vessel that was much closer to being destroyed a long time ago than had been previously reported.


Frances Ingraham Staff writer

Section: LIVING TODAY,  Page: G1

Date: Sunday, September 14, 1986

The Sachem, a privately owned 187- foot yacht, built in 1902, once was an elegant lady of the sea. But time played its role, fortunes tossed it around, and by the time she was barely 50 years old, she was given up for dead.

However, that’s not to be. Not since Robert “Butch” Miller of Cincinnati surfaced and is determined to bring it back to life. “I’d been looking around probably eight or nine years for a steam yacht,” he said. “Not necessarily this one, and not with any intentions of purchase, because I figured it would be out of range financially for me. But I hadn’t seen any in a museum, any restored, any sunk on the bottom.. There just weren’t any around.”

However, stuck there in the sludge, where the Hudson twists into New Jersey, was the once-noble Sachem.

Seated in his cramped and cluttered living quarters on the ship that has now been raised, and docked at the Riverview Marina in Catskill, Cincinnati businessman Miller recalled how the forgotten ship became his.

He first saw it advertised for sale in Boats and Harbors magazine, but when he arrived at the site – in West, New York, N.J. – he discovered it was an endless hulk of rust bogged in the Hudson.

“The (seller) was selling his property,” he recalled, “and this was the last thing that was left. Everybody was afraid of it. They had tried to move it out a couple of times and it didn’t move. They tried to move it with bulldozers,” without success. Miller had no idea he would find it in this condition.

All the ad mentioned was that the vessel was a steel hull, it had an engine that wasn’t in running condition, and the size and the year the vessel was built.

“I thought, ‘Wow! That could be about the size of one of those old steam yachts!'” he recalled.

Miller decided to buy and restore the vessel, no matter what it took. So he paid the $7,500, called in the bulldozers and tugs and eventually prodded it in the Hudson, in the spring of ’85.

The upper deck was a shambles, leaving him the choice of sleeping outside or in the bathroom – which he didn’t recognize until he took a couple of inches of mud off it. The hull was sloshing with rain water. Parts of it leaked.

Miller wasn’t discouraged.

With his mother handling the family business of manufacturing auger bits and wire-stringing devices in Cincinnati, 35-year-old Miller has been living on, and patiently restoring, his “dream boat” ever since. Occasionally, he returns to be with his wife Deborah, a court stenographer in Cincinnati, and their five-year-old son.

One of these days, Miller says he hopes to sail the Sachem home – a 2,600-mile voyage through the Erie Canal, the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi to the Ohio River.

Just in case he should break down on his way, Miller has also bought a 12- foot, 1881 tug with a powerful engine for $1,250. Another reason he bought the tug was to save the $200 an hour it would have taken him to have the Sachem professionally tugged from Brooklyn to New Jersey before he could get his vessel going.

But why all the fuss? Why all the toil, the time away from home? Why has Miller already spent close to $50,000 to get the old tub going, and expects to spend close to $1 million before his dream boat no longer is a nightmare?

Because the Sachem isn’t just any boat, he reasoned.

The Sachem, a steel-hulled steam yacht, first named the Celt, was built by Pusey & Jones, Wilmington, Del., for a Manhattan entrepreneur J. Rogers Maxwell and launched in April 1902.

When he died, Maxwell’s widow sold it to a Matt B. Metcalf of New York City who continued to use it as a pleasure craft until 1917.

With World War I under way, the U.S. Navy requisitioned it. They thoroughly refitted the boat – removing the masts, sealed the ornate brass- fringed portholes with steel, raised the sides to make it ocean-worthy, added military navigational equipment…

By the time they were through with it, the yacht resembled a battleship.

She was pressed into service as a harbor patrol craft but was better known, at that time, as a floating laboratory for inventer Thomas A. Edison.

On board, Edison worked on and perfected more than 30 military aids, including underwater detection devices, the fog bomb, efficient nautical steering devices, underwater searchlights, airplane detectors, ship-to-ship telephonic communication.

After the war, in 1919, the Navy returned the Sachem to Metcalf who sold it to a Jake Martin. After using it for a years as a fishing charter boat out of Sheepshead Bay, L.I., the Sachem became the flagship of the Circle Line sightseeing service in Manhattan.

The vessel – close to 24 feet wide and sitting about 13 feet in the water – originally contained two deck houses, forward and aft, of solid mahogany with teak sills and brass handrails.

The furnished and accessorized state rooms, which were also finished in mahogany had adjoining bathrooms with mosaic-tiled floors, porcelain or vitreous walls that were five feet deep. It was equipped with modern plumbing and electric power throughout. The vessel was designed as a schooner, its stout masts made of Oregon pine. The engine was a four-cylinder powerhouse in an open engine room.

Miller added: “Norman Brauer, the curator of the South Street Seaport Museum (in New York City) said that there are only three of these steam engines left in the world.”

The past year “hasn’t been all unique experiences and fun for me,” said Miller. “You can’t just pull up to any ol’ dock and tie this boat up. You need a commercial-size dock and security for insurance and personal reasons.”

When he first rescued the ship, Miller he towed it to a lumber yard in Brooklyn and tied up to the loading docks.

With the engine in need of repairs, he said he would spend that time with interior renovations, then sail it to Cincinnati for further work.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way, though.

A gang of vandals applied an axe to the mahagony panels in the cabin, went to work with cans of spray paint, made off with the 2,000-pound anchor, most of Miller’s tools, a steam cleaner, band saws, paint remover, engine parts – even the garbage.

Late last September, it happened again: Vandals pitched the 900-pound engine heads overboard.

Miller tried to flee the damned area, but chronic engine problems had him grounded at the expensive Bay Street landing on Staten Island.

“It was kinda fun and scary,” Miller recalled. “I’d watch the Columbian freighters come in and vans from nowhere would pull up and park in the lot. The FBI kept an eye on me before the President’s arrival (for the Fourth of July Statue of Liberty celebrations). There was no protection or fences. Anybody, who wanted to come up on the boat, could.”

On the lighter side, while docked there, rock queen Madonna taped a fleeting moment of her new video “Papa Don’t Preach”in front of the boat’s bow.

During the past few months, Miller has shared his boat with an aging Afgahn hound. He said he has existed on a steady diet of canned goods, peanut butter, jelly, fruit and any produce he can buy.

One day soon, Miller hopes to be home with his “dream.”

“I’ve been interested in boats since I was 10 years old,” he said. “I always wanted to keep on going and not go back home at the end of the day. I thought that was the only way to go. My dad always had boats. I’ve never seen a boat or ship I didn’t want to have. I almost bought a 350-foot passenger cargo vessel once, and a P-T boat.”

Now that he’s skipper of his historic boat, Miller said: “I’m not going to make a disco, a floating shushi bar or sightseeing boat out of it. It’s just strictly my yacht; for me to be able to go whenever and wherever. Heck, I can use my 46-footer as the dingy for this boat!”

Miller always had the burning spirit of an adventurer in him, he said slowly, looking down in his cup of coffee. “Maybe now I qualify.”

Surely enough Miller brought the ship across the country and boldly took it up a tributary with some idea of dry docking it for repairs. But at that point, as they often do, the adventure ran out, and reality caught up to the endeavor. The resources to repair the ship even back then would have been in the millions of dollars and now in the state it currently is, likely millions more, and there just aren’t many people out there who want to pour money into that kind of project just to preserve something. It wouldn’t make much economic sense—which has generated a very lukewarm reception of D’Andrea LaRosa’s fundraising campaign—even with the prestige of her family’s pizza empire at her back. This has left the Sachem in limbo—a kind of in between world squeezed by business finance, good intentions, historical value, and practicality. Yet as I looked at it beached in Northern Kentucky with the lush deciduous forest barking bird calls reminiscent of a rain forest in Peru I could think of many other instances where much more audacious efforts had been made for far less reason. What came to my mind were the many people who read Overmanwarrior’s Wisdom that contribute vast sums of wealth into political campaigns and if the same effort were given to the Sachem, the ship could be saved.image

As I was looking at the Sachem it appeared to be stable enough to sustain lifting it out of the creek bed with a large construction crane supported at multiple points under the hull. There is a large field directly to the south which could lean over the tree line and down into the creek. Access to the field appears to be reasonable with a large truck to carry all the equipment to the proper location. The ship could then be lifted out and placed on a barge or large flatbed tractor-trailer and taken out of the area for repairs. Given the cost of making the ship sea worthy, it is likely prohibitive, but might be better suited as a dry docked museum, restaurant, or both. It would be a wonderful exhibit at Newport on the Levy, the Cincinnati Banks project, the Museum Center in Cincinnati, or even the Edison Museum in Michigan. The top of the ship could be rebuilt with wood to look like it did leaving all the plumbing and engines out of the restoration equation to save cost.

To receive the investment dollars, unconventional explorations should be utilized, such as informing location scouts for motion pictures who have a need for a location like the one where the Sachem is. As I was looking at the vessel, it looked marvelous in the woods and would fit nicely as a ship wreck for a movie that needed that type of setting. It would cost a lot to build such a location and the land around the ship would easily accommodate a film crew. Again the land to the south is flat and relatively open allowing for trailers, tents, and equipment storage for location shooting.   An example of the location and how it could be filmed dramatically can be seen in the sample video my daughter and I put together during our visit seen at the start of this article. After collecting the footage we went over to McDonald’s in Lawrenceburg and cut it together as we had lunch. It was only about a 7 to 10 minute drive across the bridge from the ship to the McDonald’s so a film crew would have no trouble finding nice hotel accommodations that are very comfortable. The land around the Sachem was actually magnificent visually allowing film crews to shoot other scenes not directly related to a ship wreck and fees collected from the use could help fund the restoration of the Sachem. Film studios are usually sympathetic to these kinds of causes and might be entirely supportive. The key would be to let scouts know about the location so it could be used in this fashion. Hollywood is constantly looking for locations that offer tax incentives, which is why the new Avenger films are being shot in Ohio. Kentucky and Indiana have wonderful locations that could utilize the same resources. It is in this fashion that resurrecting the Sachem makes the most sense.image

Yes it is possible, and worthy—and would require a lot of people to do it for all the right reasons putting aside their need for private wealth, prestige, or other vanities and sincerely work to give new life to the Sachem—the Cincinnati Ghost Ship. An even better project would be to produce a series on the History Channel chronicling the life of the Sachem as a 7 or 8 part series and using the proceeds generated to actually save the ship. These are the only ways that I see a project of this scope happening—it certainly will take more than D’Andrea LaRosa’s kind efforts, or the other enthusiasts who have taken up the Sachem as a personal crusade. The money for the effort has to come from somewhere and it would be up to the parties involved to make it easy for that money to take up the cause—otherwise the ship will rot away on the banks of the Ohio River.

I certainly understand Robert Miller running out of gas on the project. He worked hard to get the ship saved from a New Jersey scrap yard, and his resources ran out once he got it to that creek and he hasn’t had the ability since then to continue. But he did his job as far as I’m concerned. Apparently the person he is now and the one described in the article is the result of many hard years and disappointments. But all hope is not lost. All that’s needed is a direction change and an emphasis on new methods to generate the funds required to save this remarkable ship filled with nautical history. It will take more than Robert Miller to save the Sachem this time—and it will take more than luck. But it is possible, and quite worth the effort.

Rich Hoffman


13 thoughts on “Saving a Cincinnati ‘Ghost Ship’: History and methods of resurrecting the ‘Sachem’

  1. Good article. I have been doing a little to help. NavSource has noted the Foundation has custody and a link to the campaign. Right now I am chasing down what remains of the original drawings in the museum that has what remains from the original yard that built her. I explained this is a little different, I will then send what is found to the foundation and give them a campaign link at the end if they want it as they do newsletter articles on steam yachts built there. I would draw up a plan of attack and start with volunteers and keep a log. This is how our air museum got started on a busted up B-17 they wanted to turn into pop cans. Shovel the plants off. Decide on a paint color. Leave it in better shape than you found it. Once changes are noticed more help may be forthcoming.


      1. I think we just got lucky. I had a jump drive sent to the Foundation. The original yard is gone but the construction drawings survived from 1902. All of them. Boilers, fixtures, hull…Wish I could load a few files.There were three whole rolls. I do not do facebook in my line of work. They have been converted to digital at Hagley Museum.


  2. By the way, those engines are diesel. The Original steam engines were taken out early in the ships life. The engines were working when I was aboard her as a kid in the early 70s. My Grandfather was Captain from 1970 to 1976. I’ve been in that engine room. I remember the time going through he Harlem river making one of her usual round trips around manhattan when the steering gave out and we bumped a bridge abutment. There were a few screams and my grandfather was quite angry as he had been a tugboat captain for 40 years and knew everything there is to about maneuvering vessels around manhattan. Hanging on the wall in front of the engine I recall my grandfather showing me the electric device that energized the motor that moved the rudder. Apparently it didn’t function for a short period of time at a critical moment. As soon as we got docked, deckhands were painting the small area that scraped the bridge. That area on the right side of the ship is probably still there.


  3. I visited the Sachem just last week with a few friends during a road trip. It was an amazing sight, but also very depressing seeing it rot away. Its left me in a slump for the last week and until I found your article this morning. Seeing people who are still interested in saving this great piece of American history has perked me up. I’ve read about its history multiple times, but this is the first time I’ve saw Miller’s description of the journey and it was a great read. I’m curious if you know if any further progress has been made? Great article, keep up the great work!


    1. Thanks, it is a great story, but there has been no further interest from anybody serious. A lot of people have read this article, but it has not led to any connection from that riverbed to a museum–which is what should happen to it. It deserves that type of fate. Not where it is now.


  4. I want to help save this ship. Can others who are interested please contact me at nathan dot cline at gmail dot com? Would someone mind sending me that thumb drive full of engineering drawings, etc? Thank you.


  5. Mr. Hoffman, may I thank you for your aticles about the ship, even if I only comment on them years later ! Very inspirationnal indeed. That, at least, didn’t changed since 2014.
    I have been actively documenting anything about the ship and how to preserve it — Sachem deserves way more care, and its history to be told. It has served many people and many people now must serve it in order to preserve its legacy. While me and the people I met (in order to imagine a preservation project) are rewriting the complete history of the ship, investigating restoration opportunities, debating, etc., the ship still deteriorate…and is slowly being cut into pieces. Tomorrow it’s USS Sachem’s 115th birthday and its 31st while resting, in a shameful condition, in a muddy creek. For me and my colleagues the restoration of the ship to a top-condition, like as it was in the 1900s, is more of an utopia. But progressively bringing it back into time, starting with Circle Line equipments, it is possible. Preservation is absolutely necessary and I dare say for less than $20k the boat will no longer look as a wreck and later attract enough funds for towing and drydocking if the whole project is carried out well.
    Next step per me is to create a nonprofit organization to take care of the ship. It seems like an administrative hell. I have been doing a lot of other things.
    So whoever reads this, we will need anyone who wants the ship restored and who can contribute. No, it wont be today nor tomorrow, probably not this year. But it will happen as soon everyone is ready to make a small investment. Each dollar will count. each memory of the ship will count. each benevolent hour will count. Please take a look at my website and join our provisionnal discussion platform if you want to help. I believe nothing should stop someone’s will to help.


  6. Hey Guy’s “Howdy”, I worked for Butch at his Mother’s auger company and help bring the Sachem where she’s resting now on a cold, snowy Feb. Night in ’87, Why Feb.? Because had to wait for snow andr ain to bring Ohio river up to flood stage [52′ ft.] in order to run her up the creek, with the help of a I & M powerplant across the river tugboat to steady us in the swift current as Butch used a broom handle taped to throttle and goose it as i watched and yelled back to Butch which way to manuever in creek in the dark, What a Rush it was! Scary Yet exciting, my wife and yr old daughter to this day knew i was on the Sachem with my boss BUT no clue what we were going through until we finailly made as far as we could and cabled to down. More if interested, I know the ship like the back of my hand; every weak and brittle area of the hull ass well, We used old rubber car floor matts to seal some hole in the Hudson, To restore as you have mentioned would be out of Love, Any questions or i can help, Let me know Best, Scott Ellis, Aurora, Indiana ps: spent many a nights on her too keep bilge’s pumped out though she still sink from time to time, Had 4 big pumps onboard


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