Historic Schooner Gets Major Facelift to Stay in Key West

Chad Newman

by Chad Newman

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A $1.25 million restoration project has kept a historic sailing schooner in Key West, the same city it was built and launched 72 years ago. The full refurbishment of the 130-foot Western Union required more than three years and was spearheaded by a local organization formed to preserve the vessel and keep it in Key West. Launched in 1939, Western Union is a traditional American coasting schooner that served the Western Union Telegraph Company for 35 years as a cable repair ship working on lines between Key West and Cuba and throughout the Caribbean. Years later, it operated as a local tour vessel, but maintenance and renovation costs forced previous owners, Historic Tours of America, to cease the ship's operations. Fearful the ship would leave, a group of locals formed the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society and Museum and HTA agreed to donate the ship to the group as long as it was restored and remained in Key West. Now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Western Union is believed to be the world's only surviving sailing cable ship according to local maritime historians. Restoration efforts included replacing numerous hull, transom and deck planks and refitting all electric, plumbing, engine and steering mechanisms. The Western Union is resuming day sails, sunset cruises and charters.