The magnificent schooner is a tangible reminder of the Florida Keys’ rich, colorful maritime heritage — and its recent history demonstrates the island’s dedication to preserving and honoring that heritage.
Launched in 1939, the 130-foot Western Union is the last surviving example of a traditional American coasting schooner. It served the Western Union Telegraph Co. for 35 years as a cable-laying and maintenance vessel — and it’s believed to be the world’s only surviving sailing cable ship.
In 1997, Key West’s Historic Tours of America acquired the Western Union and began operating it for day and sunset sails and charters. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it came to be known as the flagship of Key West.
Years later, after consistently losing money on the schooner, Historic Tours was forced to put it up for sale. Interest reportedly came from groups in Tampa and the Cayman Islands, but potential buyers wouldn’t guarantee that they’d keep the Western Union in Key West.
That was definitely not okay with island residents, who understand and value Key West’s renegade maritime past. So a grassroots foundation was formed to preserve the Western Union and keep it home-ported where it belonged — and Historic Tours’ owner Ed Swift promptly donated the vessel on the condition that the foundation do just that.
Under the auspices of the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society, the venerable vessel underwent a $1.25 million restoration project that took more than three years. In April 2011, a gala re-launching ceremony was held at Key West’s Historic Seaport.
Mayor Craig Cates, whose family has a personal connection with the Western Union, presided over the ceremonies.
“Our maritime history runs deep in Key West, so this is a special day for us — and especially for my family, since my grandfather worked on the vessel,” said the mayor.
Just over a year after that auspicious day, the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society received wonderful news from the office of Florida Governor Rick Scott. On April 27, the governor signed a bill making the stately schooner the flagship of the entire state.
“The Western Union is the last remaining working coastal sailing vessel from Florida’s great maritime history,” stated Bill Barry, president and chairman of the society. “This designation is a great honor for the ship, the people who have supported it, and the Florida Keys & Key West.”
The bill, which previously passed unanimously in Florida’s Senate and House, will take effect July 1.
These days, visitors can see the Western Union anchored in Key West’s Historic Seaport. Better yet, they can set sail on the soon-to-be state flagship for a breathtaking sunset excursion or stargazer cruise … and, on the water surrounding the island city, celebrate the historic schooner and the community that kept it where it belongs.