Bert Budde  /  AP
Built and launched in Key West in 1939, the 130-foot-long schooner is believed to be the world's only surviving sailing telegraph cable ship. The Western Union now carries visitors on cruises and charters.
updated 4/12/2011 12:39:37 PM ET 2011-04-12T16:39:37

A restored schooner that served the Western Union Telegraph Company and now carries visitors on leisure trips from Key West has been fully refurbished after a three-year, $1.25 million effort.

Residents celebrated the restoration Saturday.

Refurbishment of the 72-year-old, 130-foot Western Union was spearheaded by a local organization formed to preserve the vessel and keep it home-ported in Key West, where it was originally assembled.

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. Years later, it operated as a local tour vessel, but maintenance and renovation costs forced the 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 the owners agreed to donate the ship to the group as long as it was restored and remained in Key West.

The Monroe County Tourist Development Council contributed $405,000 and the Historic Foundation of the Florida Keys gave $300,000 for repairs. The rest of the funding came from donations from local residents and businesses, and a bank loan.

Key West Mayor Craig Cates, whose grandfather Cecil Cates worked as a mate on the vessel, presided over Saturday's 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 Cates. "They used to go out and pick up the cable, check it for leaks and repair it."

The ship is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and 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 now carries visitors on day sails, sunset cruises and charters.

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