87. Schooner Western Union

Historic Marker number 87 is located at the Key West Historic Seaport and the end of Williams Street.

The Western Union Schooner, built in Key West between 1938 and 1939, is one of the oldest surviving authentic wooden working schooners in the United States and the only remaining tall ship built in Key West. It is referred to as a "working schooner" due because its design and purpose was work instead of use as a passenger ship or a ship of leisure.

Thompson Enterprises, owned by Norberg Thompson (see Historic Marker #88), built and ported The Western Union locally in Key West as a job specific ship. Thompson constructed it with a 24 foot beam and drawing 7½ feet, to lay and maintain the Western Union telegraph cable lines stretching from Key West under the waters of the Florida Straits to Cuba.

The Western Union launched from Key West's Smathers Beach on April 7th, 1939, and sailed the Florida Straits, the Caribbean, and South Atlantic until 1974. The ship logged over 30,000 miles in the service of the Western Union Company. Prior to the telegraph cables, the only way to communicate across the 90 miles to Cuba was to travel by sailing ship or steamer to deliver messages.

To determine the location of cable breaks, operators sent an electronic signal along a damaged cable to determine its location. Once the ship reached the location of the break, sailors would drop lines with hooks and slowly drag it along the bottom until it caught hold of the cable. Crew members would winch the cable to the surface and fix the cable break before releasing it back into the water

In 1974, Western Union sold the ship to Vision Quest a non-profit that aimed to redirect troubled youth who eventually sold it to the for-profit touring company, Historic Tours of America. In 2007, Historic Tours donated the ship to the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society & Maritime Museum, who restored the schooner to sail with passengers as a sailing and working museum.

Since then, the ship was designated the flagship of the City of Key West and, in 2012, it was officially designated the flagship of the State of Florida. The ship was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984.

An interesting footnote to the history of telegraph cables happened on Christmas day, 1900. The International Ocean Telegraph Company (a Western Union subsidiary) ran an experiment with the Key West side of the telegraph cable to see if it could be used to transmit telephone calls. John Atkins, the manager, called Cuba. After a long silence, the Cuban operator replied "I don't understand you". The call was the first recorded international phone call (see Historic Marker #27).