The Western Union

A couple of months ago Key West’s flagship was rededicated after a three year restoration by the volunteers of the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society.  Many of us have taken leisurely sunset cruises on the vessel over the years and have some knowledge of its beginnings as a cable ship for the Western Union Telegraph Company.

The ship and its predecessor the Atkins were built locally and leased back to Western Union by Norberg Thompson.  Norberg was a prominent business man who employed forty percent of Key West during the depression and built a private island off the shores of Key West for his private residence.  That story will have to wait for a future column.

The Western Union was built as a work boat designed to repair the four telegraph lines that were strung underwater linking Cuba and Key West in the 1800’s.  The importance of telegraph lines cannot be overstated.  The telegraph was cutting edge communication technology in the 1800’s.  You couldn’t call, text or tweet a friend.  The only other option was to sail to Cuba to deliver your message.

Imagine trying to locate a telegraph cable in the wide expanses of the Florida Straits and then having to drag the wet slippery cable aboard for repairs on a rocking boat deck.  Dick Steadman, the last captain of the ship said that it was common for them to use the stars to locate the general vicinity of the cable.  They would then drop a grappling hook to the ocean bottom and drag it until they were able to snag the cable.  A winch aboard the ship would drag the cable aboard for repairs.

In 1900 the phone company decided to test the telegraph cables to see if they could be used to relay voice and sound.  A number of tests were made on the lines between Key West and Havana, Cuba.   On Christmas day John W. Atkins called Cuba and after a long silence, the operator in Havana answered quite simply “I don’t understand you”.  With those words the first intercontinental call was completed.

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