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Ohio River 'ghost ship' a historical treasure trove

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It’s not every day that you stumble across a historical gem, but that’s exactly what happened to some kayakers when they discovered a well-traveled 112-year-old steel ship moored in its final resting place along the Ohio River.

Though the discovery was actually made in 2012, the story has been in the news again this week. The Weather Channel notes on Wednesday that the 186-foot ‘ghost ship’ lies aground in a tributary near Lawrenceburg, Indiana. A group of friends filmed some video of the rusty remains, which you can check out here.

The ship’s storied history begins in 1902, when it was built in Wilmington, Delaware as a private yacht and dubbed the Celt. Fast forward to the breakout of World War I, when the vessel was acquired by the U.S. Navy for patrol duty and renamed the USS Sachem (a title for some northeast Native American chiefs, specifically of the Algonquians), complete with weapons such as torpedoes.

Following the Great War, the ship fell into the hands of various people, the most noteworthy being Thomas Edison. The inventor reportedly used it for government-funded experiments in New York Harbor and some sailing. The ship’s original owner and a Philadelphia banker also had it for a time during the interwar period.

History rolled on and once again the ship was called to duty in February 1942 when the Navy sought it out as the United States entered World War II. It was renamed and commissioned as the USS Phenakite and used to train soldiers until being placed out of service in 1945.

Next, it was returned back to the original owner and renamed Sachem for a second time. Its final job was with the Circle Line of New York City, where it was called Sightseer and then Circle Line V as it carried tourists for sightseeing tours. You can see photos of the ship in its multiple jobs here.

Navsource.org says the ship was reportedly scrapped (decommissioned?) in 1984 but managed one more moment in the spotlight; it made a quick cameo in Madonna’s music video for “Papa Don’t Preach.”

If you have any sailing experience, you may be cringing at the ship’s long list of name changes, as it’s long been a superstition among sailors that changing a boat’s name is a harbinger of bad luck. One part of maritime history says it is considered unlucky to rename a vessel because it signaled that a major transaction had taken place, thus running the risk of drawing the attention of unwanted people such as tax authorities.

There’s also a mythological reason for holding onto a boat’s name whenever possible; you wouldn’t want to risk incurring the wrath of the sea gods. Legend has it that every single vessel is recorded in the Ledger of the Deep, maintained by Poseidon himself (or Neptune, if you’re of the Roman persuasion). It is possible to change a name without ticking him off, but you’d have to be meticulous about it. A proper christening ceremony complete with champagne is of the utmost importance for making the change in an official and reverential manner. No word on whether the ghost ship went through all the proper channels each time, but it certainly appears to have held up through its decades-spanning history.

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