On April 14, 2012 the sea port of Saint Nazaire in western France will mark the 150th anniversary of the creation of the first regular steamship service between France and the Americas.
In the town of Saint Nazaire, in Loire-atlantique department of western France, where it all began, the anniversary will be celebrated with free exhibitions recording the port’s connections with transatlantic shipping over the last 150 years and a themed cruise tracing the maritime history of what is still one of France’s most important centres for shipbuilding.
It was almost exactly one year after the start of the American Civil War that the French shipping company Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) established the first scheduled sailings from the port of Saint Nazaire on the French Atlantic seaboard to Veracruz in Mexico. Before a cheering crowd on the quayside, the steamship Louisiana, named after the former French colony, put to sea under steam power.
SS France in Hong Kong Harbour 1974
So began an era of transatlantic ocean liners that was to last for over a century. In the 20th century, luxurious transatlantic liners like the SS France (from France), the UK registered Cunard Line ships RMS Queen Mary and RMS Queen Elizabeth and the SS United States would traverse the north Atlantic Ocean taking roughly seven days for a one way trip.
Back in 1862, the North Atlantic crossing took a bit longer. Ships would normally depart Saint Nazaire in France in the middle of the month heading for their first stop in Puerto Rico. That leg of the crossing took about two weeks in good weather. On the next stage ships headed out from Puerto Rico to Havana in Cuba, a four day trip. The last leg, from Cuba to Veracruz in Mexico, usually took the early steamships six or seven days to complete. Crossing the Atlantic in 1862 therefore took almost a month.
In the 1920s, CGT moved most of its shipping operations to Le Havre on the French side of the English Channel. Le Havre (along with Cherbourg, also in France), would then become part of the triangular route, the other ports being Southampton in the south of England and New York. It was this triangle of French, British and American ports that would usher in the peak years for transatlantic liners between the 1930s and 1960s, excluding the Second World War.
Wikimedia Commons, Vick the Viking
French liner SS Normandie at sea
Saint Nazaire’s transatlantic connection did not end with CGT’s decampment to France’s north coast. This Atlantic gateway went on to become the biggest and most important shipbuilding centre in France. One of the largest docks in the world, the Joubert dock, sometimes known as the Normandie dock, was completed in 1932. Saint Nazaire would later to give birth to two of the most graceful ocean liners to grace the North Atlantic route, the SS Normandie, which made its maiden voyage in 1935, and the SS France, launched in 1960.
Nowadays, Saint Nazaire is home to STX Europe, one of the most technologically advanced shipyards in the world. Nor has the town given up on creating giants of the seas. On the drawing board is a futuristic new SS France which would be like no other ship afloat.