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Group Asks Key West For $250,000 To Fix Florida's Flagship

Monroe County Public Library

Update: June 18, 3:39 p.m.: The Key West City Commission this week approved the $250,000 commitment toward repairs for the Schooner Western Union.

That commitment clears the way for the nonprofit that owns the historic schooner to apply for a state grant that would match the city's money 2-to-1.

With $750,000, the nonprofit leaders say, they can bring the schooner up to standards for Coast Guard certification. The plan is for the schooner to take passengers from Key West's historic seaport and pay for itself and any needed repairs in the future.

The Schooner Western Union was already a throwback to the age of sail when the ship was built in Key West in 1939.

It's an example of an American coasting schooner, of the kind that sailed along the Atlantic shore throughout the 19th century. From its launch until 1973, the Western Union was a cable tender, maintaining the lines of communication between the U.S. and the Caribbean.

"In a sense, she was sort of the early Internet provider," said John Dolan-Heitlinger, treasurer of the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society, the nonprofit that owns the ship. It's the flagship of the city of Key West.

The group is raising money for a re-fit of the ship, required by the Coast Guard. On Wednesday, the advisory board for Key West's Historic Seaport unanimously recommended that the city contribute up to $250,000. The final decision is up to the city commission, which will consider the matter next week.

"She really represents our maritime heritage. Key West today is primarily a tourist town," said Dolan-Heitliner. "I think it's good to have authentic parts of our past represented here, just as we have a lighthouse and our museums and those kinds of things."

The nonprofit directors are hoping for a two-to-one matching grant from the state. The schooner was named the state's flagship in 2012.

"This decision will literally decide the fate of the Western Union," said Harry Bowman, the advisory board member who proposed the $250,000 grant. "This is her last chance."

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.