KEY WEST (CBS4) – A historic sailing schooner has undergone a $1.25 million restoration in Key West, the same city in which it was built and launched 72 years ago.

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.

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.

Funding was derived from grants by the Keys tourism council, a historic foundation as well as via donations from local residents, businesses and a bank loan.

“It’s the commemoration of three years of hard labor and a community wide effort to bring this vessel back into service for the citizens of Key West, the visitors to the Keys and it’s something that the community is and should be very proud of,” said William Barry, president of the preservation society.

Key West Mayor Craig Cates, whose grandfather Cecil Cates worked as a mate on the vessel, presided over ceremonies Saturday that heralded the end of the project.

“My grandfather, Cecil Gates Sr. worked on the railroad when the built the railroad coming to Key West and after that he worked on the Western Union when it was picking up the cable to Cuba and maintaining it,” Cates said. “It means a great deal to our family.”

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.

Source: Florida Keys News Bureau