Island Chronicles, vol. 9: ‘Ready for Sea’ – The Construction and Launching of the Schooner Western Union as reported in the Key West Citizen.
Welcome to “Island Chronicles,” the Florida Keys History Center’s monthly feature dedicated to investigating and sharing events from the history of Monroe County, Florida. These pieces draw from a variety of sources, but our primary well is the FKHC’s archive of documents, photographs, diaries, newspapers, maps, and other historical materials.
By Corey Malcom, PhD
Lead Historian, Florida Keys History Center
In 1938, the Thompson Fish Company, an arm of the wide-ranging Thompson Enterprises of Key West, needed a new schooner. The company’s owner Norberg Thompson was the island’s leading businessman, and he was involved in commercial fishing and turtling, the production of ice, cigar boxes, and canned fruit. For many years, the Thompson Company also owned a schooner called the J. W. Atkins, which it leased the to the Western Union Telegraph Company for maintenance of undersea cables. By 1938, the J. W. Atkins was aging, and a new vessel was needed to take its place. In July, work began at Key West on the new, replacement schooner, and it would be the last time a substantial, tall ship was built on the island. The vessel, designed to lift and repair undersea telegraph cables, had to be a tough, durable workhorse, and, as with the J.W. Atkins, the new schooner would be leased to Western Union.
Norberg Thompson had a long history with the Cayman Islands through his turtle canning business, and he employed Caymanian ships and crews in that enterprise. He was familiar with and admired the work of Caymanian shipwrights, so he contracted with brothers Heber and Loxley Arch of George Town, Grand Cayman to design and build the new schooner.
Construction of the vessel actually started at George Town, with the pre-fabrication of the schooner’s framework. In a 1983 interview with maritime historian E.H. Ross, Heber Arch gave an outline of the construction process. “This is what happened. [Thompson] contracted with me to supply the hardwood for her. I supplied the hard timber for the ribs, the stem, the sternpost. I framed her here [at Grand Cayman] in what they call a breakdown rig. Then I took that apart again, and I took her to Key West, Florida. Then set her up; put all the ribs and everything up, and then we finished her in Key West. The keel wasn’t laid here [at Grand Cayman]. All her ribs were made up and fitted and taken down, marked, and shipped to Key West. There, the keel was built, and we put up all the ribs and stem and stuff bolted all through.”
The framing for the new cable schooner was carried to Key West by the Thompson turtling vessel A. M. Adams. To comply with the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 (aka the Jones Act), which required any ship carrying cargo between two U.S. ports to be American built, the cable schooner’s keel was laid at Key West and the pre-cut framing assembled on top of it. The vessel was then planked, powered, and rigged from there. This gave Thompson an American-built ship as far as the law was concerned, but one with all the qualities of Caymanian craftsmanship. Heber Arch’s brother Loxley went to Key West with a crew of Caymanian assistants, and they partnered with a group of Key West builders and assembled and finished the ship at the old Aeromarine Airways seaplane hangars near the harbor end of Duval Street. “Loxley completed the ship. He completed it seaworthy, ready for sea,” said Heber.
The year-long process of building what would become the schooner Western Union was a significant event for Key West – no large ship had been built there in 35 years – and the entirety of the project was reported on by the Key West Citizen. From the laying of the keel to its final trial run, the newspaper provided regular, step-by-step coverage of the construction, and taken together, those accounts provide the best record of how the process unfolded. They are the record of an important story in the island’s maritime history. To pull the reports together in one place, the transcripts of the Citizen’s articles on the construction of the schooner Western Union are presented in order of publication below:
Key West Citizen, July 9, 1938, p.1
Work Begins This Week On First Schooner Built Here In 35 Years
New Western Union Cable Boat To Replace J.W. Atkins
Building of one of the largest ships ever constructed in Key West, the first schooner in over 35 years, began this week in the old Aeromarine shed off the north end of Duval street when the Thompson Fish Company began work on a 96-foot cable schooner for the Western Union.
According to old timers around the waterfront, the last large boat constructed here was the “Panama,” but the last schooner was the Magnolia, built over 35 years ago.
A group of ship carpenters, originally from the Grand Cayman islands, were imported from Tampa and Miami to do the job which will take at least seven months before launching. L.A. Archer, Wilke Bodden, and Elbert Jackson are the carpenters originally from the islands. Mr. Archer drew up the plans, which are similar to the lines of the “J.W. Atkins,” present cable schooner. A force of about twelve will eventually be put on the job.
The frames will be of Spanish mahogany and planking of three-inch Florida pine. Beam, or width, of the boat will be 24 feet. She will be about 90 tons. The name of the schooner has not been decided on as yet.
In the schooner will be twin screw motors. She is expected to be ready for launching in seven months. After that the masts must be stepped and equipment transferred from the present cable schooner. In this equipment will be the cable sheaves at the stern and winches which are employed to pick up cables parted in mid-ocean. The hold will be large enough for 20 miles of deep-sea cable. Eight months from now the schooner should be ready to be commissioned. G.R. Steadman will be her master.
The “J.W. Atkins” was also built by the Thompson Fish Company 55 years ago in Baltimore. It has been in exclusive chartered use by the Western Union for the last 11 years. It was the first boat to carry the modern cable equipment. Previously, the Western Union chartered any boat that was available for its cable repair work. The new schooner will also be exclusively chartered by the Western Union.
Its duties will be to tend three cables laid from Key West to Cuba, the first to be laid in 1869, part of the original cable of which is still working, another in 1899, and a third in 1917. Also one to Punta Rassa in 1890, and another to Punta Rassa 1924, and one to Miami Beach in 1899. A final cable going to Barbadoes in South America, laid in 1920, must also be tended.
Key West Citizen, July 16, 1938, p.1
Cable Schooner Keel To Be Laid Monday
Keel of the new cable schooner, construction of which began last week, will be laid Monday probably, Loxley A. Arch, in charge, told The Citizen today, with 20 set frames, showing the lines of the schooner, to be in place probably the following day.
Work thus far, Mr. Arch said, has consisted of cutting the 20 set frames, made of Spanish mahogany, and assembling them. The remaining 44 frames have also been cut but not assembled as yet. The mahogany stem is being cut.
All around the old Aeromarine airways shed are spread the mahogany frames. The cutting is done by hand with an axe. When the keel is laid Monday, the stem will be fitted into place, mortised and tenoned together with natural growth knees on both the inside and outside of the stem along with the keel. Then will follow the bolting and fastening of the 20 frames, spaced at intervals along the keel. When this is done the lines may be clearly seen and then the stern post and stern may be fitted to correspond with those lines.
A good idea of the shape of the boat may then be had. The remainder of the frames should be bolted within 30 days when the framework will be ready for the 2½-inch planking.
Key West Citizen, August 13, 1938, p.1
First Cable Schooner Planking on Monday
First planking of the cable schooner being built for the Western Union at the old Aeromarine shed was begun Monday of this week, but work will now be transferred to inside the hull with the remaining outside planking to be recommenced in three weeks. The planks now on are 4 feet 8 inches from the top-sides and are known as the bends. Work inside the hull will consist in putting down clamp streaks and stringers to which the deck beams will be fastened.
The overhanging stern is almost complete in its framing. A shed is being built over the hull at present to protect it from the ravages of wind and sun.
Key West Citizen, October 17, 1938, p.1
Cable Schooner To Be Launched Early February
Will Be Ready In January; Planking Practically Complete; Decking Ceiling, Cabin Remain
The cable schooner now being constructed in the old Aeromarine shed at the foot of Duval street will probably be launched in February, although she will be ready in January, foreman Loxley Arch told The Citizen today.
The schooner will be the largest built here in the last 40 years. During recent weeks the planking was laid on and all is now in place except eight short pieces in the rear stern which await installing of propeller shaft logs.
When the schooner is launched the masts will then be placed, she will be rigged out, and the engines installed. Remaining is construction of deck and inside ceiling which also furnishes the insides sides of the boat. A small trunk cabin will be on deck with a large cabin forward able to accommodate 12 seamen. A captain’s and officers’ cabin will be aft and will accommodate from four to six men.
There are five Key Westers of the seven laborers working on the job, with three, including foreman Arch, from the Grand Cayman islands.
Key West Citizen, October 20, 1938, p.1
Unique Signs Are Displayed
An interesting sign which has attracted the attention of numerous visitors to the scene of the construction of the new schooner which is being built for the Thompson Fish Co., under the direction of Will T. Bodden, is placed near the spot of operations.
In fact, there are two signs, one right above the other. The first is addressed “Notice to All,” and is as follows: “We appreciate your visiting and will gladly answer your questions concerning this job, but do not appreciate any swearing or bad language.”
Directly below is found the following: “For women only, N.B., if you haven’t any more modesty than to appear in public with those ‘Shorts,’ etc., please keep away from here during working hours, if dressed with them.
Will T. Bodden.”
Key West Citizen, January 19, 1939, p.1
Schooner will Be Launched Late February
Ready for Use In March; Decking, Cabin Housings Completed Recently
Cable Schooner G.R. Steadman, which is being built in the old airplane shed at the foot of Duval street will be ready for launching at the end of February, foreman Loxley Arch told The Citizen today.
Recently the last of the treenails, pronounced “trunnels” by waterfronters, was driven. Although the locus wood treenails from Czechoslovakia still protrude in several places, all that remains is to cut them off. They are driven at the head of the galvanized spikes to prevent water from rusting the spikes holding the schooner together.
Caulking the boat is also in progress, and a priming coat of white has been applied to the upper part of the hull. Caulking will be of oakum and cotton, but pitch used to seal them. Even the cabin housing decking has been filled in this way. Canvas cannot be used because of the workboat features of the schooner. Railing is at present being laid. This requires careful fitting to the hollow curves of the boat. Hatches are on the main cabin, the engine room, the cable hatch, and the fo’castle.
Interesting are the rudder and mast grooves. The mast is let down seven feet to the keelson. There a block of wood receives it in a tongue and groove affair. This is to seat it properly and not allow it to slip. The rudder post, which will be of wood, is let down through a polished round post. At the lower end of the rudder post there will be a protrusion which will not allow it to come up from the force of the seas. The rudder itself will also be of wood.
The schooner should be completely outfitted by March.
Key West Citizen, March 7, 1939, p.1
Launch Vessel In Two Weeks
Launching of the Thompson Fish Company schooner, under construction, which will be leased to the Western Union for Gulf of Mexico and Gulf Stream cable repair work, is expected within two weeks, foreman Loxley Arch announced today.
The schooner, which is virtually finished, is awaiting installation of the motors for completion to launching time. After it is overboard, masts will be stepped, and the vessel will be rigged, as well as finish interior work accomplished.
The vessel is at present under a shed at the Aquamarine Aerodrome at the foot of Duval street.
Key West Citizen, April 5, 1939, p.1
Preparing To Launch Cable Ship Tomorrow
Complete Painting; Preparing Launching Cradle Today; Definite Launching Time Not Set
The new cable schooner, “Western Union,” which has been built during the past few months at the old Aeromarine Ways, is being prepared for launching either tomorrow or in the next few days.
Captain G.R. Steadman and Foreman Loxley Arch told The Citizen that all is being done to prepare for the launching tomorrow, but the definite date and time has not been determined.
Interior and decking painting has been completed in gray, white, and varnish. Exterior sides are in white, and the red copper paint for the bottom has just been laid on.
Yesterday afternoon workmen were preparing a launching cradle for the big schooner. A cradle composed of a rectangular affair made to slide on a permanent cradle with supports of long lengths to [of] wood to prevent toppling secured against the sides are being built up. The lower permanent cradle has been waxed, and a jack has been placed against the bow. When the launching time arrives, the jack will be screwed up, elevating the bow and the weight of the schooner will then start it down the ways into the bay.
The new mast has been shaped up for it and another mast from the old cable schooner “F.W. Atkins,” will be used for the rigging. These masts will be stepped from booms and winches when the new hull is brought alongside the Atkins. Motors will be installed when the schooner is overboard.
Captain Steadman, who has been connected with the Western Union cable repair business for over 20 years, has just received a perfect record from Western Union offices for a record of not one major accident on board ship nor loss of and material equipment from the Atkins.
Key West Citizen, April 6, 1939, p.1
Schooner Goes Over Tomorrow
Loxley Arch Sets Time For Launching At Noon
The new Cable Schooner “Western Union,” completed this week, will be launched at noon tomorrow, foreman Loxley Arch told The Citizen today, with the high tides expected at that time.
It was thought that launching might be today, but Mr. Arch was not satisfied with details of the cradle on which it will be launched and ordered more strengthening.
Key West Citizen, April 7, 1939, p.1
Schooner Into Water Tonight
Moves Slowly Down Temporary Ways About 30 Feet Since 11 A.M.
Cable Schooner “Western Union,” newly built, moved down the temporary cradle built for it at 11 o’clock this morning but by 2:30 this afternoon had progressed toward the water only about 30 feet.
Temporary cradles usually launch vessels very slowly since pressure by heavy jacks from the lower foundation against the cradle results only in moving it a few inches at a time. It is expected that the schooner, however, will be in the water by nightfall.
The “Powers,” vessel of the Thompson Fish Company, aided by pulling on a heavy hawser attached to a cable around the keel of the schooner, but experienced difficulty in keeping head up against the strong tide. The Pilot Three boat then went to her bow and with a line attached kept her ahead and also put its power behind the cable. Both together the steel cable around the schooner both fore and aft.
Key West Citizen, April 8, 1939, p.1
Union Launched Late Yesterday
Pilot Three, C.W. Powers Pull It Off Ways; Anchored To Atkins
New Cable Schooner “Western Union,” which had proceeded about 30 feet down the temporary ways built for it at the Aeromarine shed yesterday as The Citizen went to press, was launched around 4 o’clock.
With the “C.W. Powers” pulling on one hawser attached to the schooner’s stern and the “Pilot Three” pulling another attached to a beam hawser hole, the bit schooner started slowly down the ways, hung for a moment, and then as both vessels put their motors into high speed went down fast. The bow of the “Western Union” went into the air as the stern struck the water first and then the whole settled to the accompaniment of scattered cheers. A line of colored signal flags was rigged on the vessel’s hull as a means of celebration.
The schooner was then towed alongside the “J.W. Atkins,” the old cable schooner, where the masts will be stepped, motors installed, and the rigging placed.
Key West Citizen, May 2, 1939, p.1
New Vessel Will Soon Be In Service
Cable Schooner Will Be Placed On Drydock To Have Propellers And Shafts Put In Place
Loxley Arch, designer and builder of the Schooner Western Union for the Thompson interests, said this morning he expects to have the vessel in readiness by June 1. It will be used by the Western Union Telegraph Co. as a cable repair ship.
Mr. Arch was seen on the vessel, which is moored at the dock of Wm. Curry’s sons Co., and told The Citizen that the work was going along nicely, and he expected to have the ship placed on drydock the latter part of this week when the propellers and shafts will be placed in position and expects that when this is completed the ship will be ready for service.
Hundreds of persons, many of them able to give expert opinion, expressed the belief that aside from being a particularly attractive model, with every indication of being a speedy sailer, the vessel will, when under sail, prove to be staunch and steady “as a church,” and in every way seaworthy.
Preliminary work on the Western Union was started in July 1938.
Key West Citizen, May 9, 1939, p.1
Vessel Placed On Ways Here
Schooner Western Union, which was built for the Thompson interests and will be used as a cable repair ship by the Western Union Telegraph Co., was yesterday hauled on the local ways.
Shafts and propellers are to be installed, and minor changes effected, and the finishing touches made to ship and rigging. It is the belief of Loxley Arch, designer and superintendent of building operations, that the vessel will be ready by the first day of June, perhaps a little earlier.
Key West Citizen, May 27, 1939, p.1
New Vessel Nearly Ready For Service
Cable Schooner Now At Curry’s Dock Awaiting Arrival Of Sails To Be Bent On
Schooner Western Union, designed by and constructed under the supervision of Loxley Arch, is lying at the dock of the William Curry’s Sons Co., and is almost in readiness to leave for cable work under G.R. Steadman, cable master for the Western Union Telegraph Co.
Practically the entire force which was employed in building the schooner has been laid off, their work finished, and the remaining members of the construction crew are employed in placing the finishing work on the vessel.
To the inexperienced eye there seems that nothing is needed except the sails, which were made in Mobile and are expected to be received within the next few days by the Thompson interests, owners of the schooner.
However, there are a number of details yet to be done before the word will be said that all is in readiness and the ship ready for the sea and its class of work.
The first assignment, said Cable Master Steadman, will be to visit a point about 90 miles from Key West where a break in the Number 4 cable to Punta Rassa has been reported and which must be attended to as soon as possible.
The Western Union is of 92 tons gross, is powered by twin engines, and will carry leg of mutton sails and jib. Old heads along the water front are of the opinion that she will be a fast vessel as well as one of beautiful lines.
Key West Citizen, June 5, 1939, p.1
New Schooner Given Trial Run
Western Union Repair Vessel Complete Except For Sails Due Soon
Schooner Western Union, owned by the Thompson Interests and to be used by the Western Union Telegraph Company as a cable repair vessel, was taken out this morning for a trail trip and was commanded by Captain G.R. Steadman, cable manager for the company.
On the vessel, as an observer, was an official of the Western Union Telegraph Co., N.W. Tracey, division superintendent of Atlanta, who arrived by bus yesterday for the purpose of making the trial trip of the ship. There was also a group of other folks making the trip.
The schooner was started in July and plans drawn by Loxley Arch, designer and builder, were followed during the entire construction of the vessel, which is considered one of the finest ever built in Key West, and when the vessel left this morning on her maiden trip, she was complete in every detail except the sails, which were being made in Mobile and had not arrived today.
Twin gasoline engines are the motive power being used on the trip today, but it is expected that the sails will be here and placed before the vessel is ordered in active service.
Key West Citizen, June 6, 1939, p.1
Cable Ship Test Very Successful
Trials of the Cable Ship Western Union, which were held yesterday with Cable Manager G.R. Steadman in command, and N.W. Tracy, division manager of the Western Union Co., In Atlanta, on board, were excellent and Mr. Tracy expressed himself as being perfectly satisfied with the trials.
So satisfactory did the trials prove, the ship making eight knots and handling perfectly, that it was decided to make a run to the Western Dry Rocks, where the inspecting party caught 18 dolphin, three bonita, and numerous other fish.
Mr. Tracy said he was satisfied with everything, the proving of the cable ship and the products of the waters around Key West. He will leave for his headquarters in Atlanta tomorrow.
After the Boatyard
Three weeks later, on June 26, Western Union, received its first orders to repair the cable near Punta Rassa. One June 28, 1939, under the charge of Captain G.R. Steadman, the schooner was “ready for sea” and cleared the dock. It had taken just under one year from the time the first components of the schooner were delivered to Key West and began to be assembled to the time it started its first mission. For the next 35 years, until 1974, first captained by G.R. Steadman, who was succeeded by his son Richard T. Steadman, the Western Union did what it was designed to do – repair cables.
Once the vessel was retired from cable work, it entered passenger service, and in 1976 participated in “Operation Sail,” a gathering of tall ships in New York City to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial. The vessel was rechristened Amistad for the event, to represent the Cuban coastal slave transport of the same name, and for an unknown period following was used to tell the story of the enslaved people who in 1839, escaped to the U.S. on it and found freedom. By the early 1980s Western Union was for sale, and in 1984 it was purchased by “Vision Quest,” an organization dedicated to resocializing young people convicted of crime, and it was hoped their serving as crew would facilitate the process. Vision Quest renamed the schooner New Way. That same year, Western Union/New Way was successfully nominated for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.
In 1997, Western Union returned to Key West under the ownership of Historic Tours of America, and it was used once again for passenger service. The venture was never profitable, and ten years later, the schooner was put up for sale. A not-for-profit organization called the Schooner Western Union Preservation Society was formed by Key Westers who wanted to keep the vessel in Key West, and Historic Tours eventually donated it to them. Western Union continued to sail as an educational passenger ship, and in 2012 it was designated the official flagship for the state of Florida. But time was taking its toll, and the vessel began to require an expensive series of repairs and restorations. In 2016, it was taken to Tarpon Springs for a major overhaul, but an inexperienced restoration crew and the COVID crisis prolonged the project and dried up funding. In 2020, Western Union was towed to Stock Island and placed “on the hard.” It sits there today, in a state of increasing disrepair, with the confidence and promise of the days under the Aeromarine sheds a distant memory.
 Ross, H.E. (2002). On the Waterfront: Western Union of George Town and Key West, CaymanNet News: https://web.archive.org/web/20080504064701/http://www.caymannetnews.com/Archive/Archive%20Articles/August%202002/Issue%20227/Western%20Union.html
 Though the schooner was a sailer, the engines were necessary for it to maintain a steady position while working on cables.
 Gerald R. Steadman, born 1886 in Bristol, England.
 Though the Aeromarine sheds were available, they were too small for the schooner to fit inside.
 Nota Bene, i.e. “note well.”
 Apparently, there was a brief period when the schooner was to be named after Captain Steadman.
 Macaluso, Laura A. (2016). Art of the Amistad and The Portrait of Cinqué, Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, p.138.
 O’Hara, Tim (2021). “Faded Glory,” Key West Citizen, February 3, 2021, p.1.
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