The year 1939 saw the opening of the New York World’s Fair, the release of Gone With the Wind and the beginning of World War II.
1939 was also the year this beauty was launched.
It’s the schooner Western Union, the last surviving authentic working tall ship built in Florida.
This majestic old ship was constructed and launched off Simonton Beach in Key West just in time to take part in the informal picket fleet that protected commerce from Nazi U-boat raiders during World War II. In the years after the war, she was responsible for laying and maintaining communication cables from Florida to South and Central America, the Gulf States and the Caribbean island nations for the famous telegraph company. It logged tens of thousands of miles during those years.
After being retired in 1974, the Western Union struggled to find an owner and a home port. In 1997, she was put up for auction, purchased by Historic Tours of America for $455,000 and brought back to its home port in Key West.
Over the next decade, the tour company gave visitors from all over the world (my wife and I included) the opportunity to take cruises aboard the historic ship. Being on the Western Union as the sun slowly descended over the aqua waters of Key West is something I’ll never forget.
In recent years, however, the ship has sat idle at the Key West Seaport, battered by Mother Nature and badly showing its age. Maintenance proved to be a hardship for HTA and the company donated the ship debt-free to the non-profit group known as the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society.
The organization completed a series of overdue repairs in 2011. The ship successfully carried passengers for two years until the Coast Guard deemed it unsafe. More extensive renovations were necessary for Florida’s official flagship.
As of August 2016, the Western Union is safe and sound in the Marpro Boatyard in Tarpon Springs on the state’s Gulf Coast. SWUPS has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from Tallahassee and the city of Key West for what’s described as a major refit. The organization still needs money to cover operational costs, especially to help pay for insurance. [Learn how you can donate here.]
If all goes well, the Western Union could be back on the water carrying passengers by the summer of 2017.