History and legends of the great liners

At the beginning of the 19th century, Saint-Nazaire was a small pilot station with 600 inhabitants. In the space of a few decades, under the combined impetus of the Government, some engineers and the industrial and financial sectors, in particular the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, Saint-Nazaire became one of the most important ports on the Atlantic and a major shipbuilding centre.

1835 saw the start of a long period of expansion, a "Californian boom", with the construction of the breakwater built to provide shelter for ships. In 1840, Saint-Nazaire became the port of departure for a transatlantic postal service and in 1847 work started on excavating the first dock. Ten years later, the town had 2,000 inhabitants and had become the main port of embarkation for the West Indies, Mexico and Cayenne.

The first shipyard opened in 1862 at Penhoët, under the management of a Scots industrialist, John Scott. The "Impératrice Eugénie", the first ship to be built at Penhoët, was one of the last paddle steamers to be built at Saint-Nazaire. Hardly had the first dock, the Saint-Nazaire, been completed, than work began on a second. This would be the Penhoët dock. In 1866, the Scott shipyard went bankrupt. The two companies Chantiers de la Loire and Chantiers de Penhoët took over.

Between the two World Wars, Saint-Nazaire built the most prestigious French liners of the period: the "transatlantiques". The yard's slipways saw the launch of the first "France", followed by the "Paris", the "Ile-de-France", the Lafayette", the "Champlain", the "George Philippar" and the famous "Normandie" which was to become the fastest ship on the North Atlantic. Between 1936 and 1938, it competed fiercely for the "Blue Riband" with its main rival, the Queen Mary. Saint-Nazaire achieved world-wide renown for its expertise.

Twenty-eight years after the "Normandie", the launch of the "France", the third ship to carry that name, was the occasion for a grand ceremony in the presence of the President of the Republic, Charles de Gaulle and his wife, who christened the ship. The "France", the longest ship in the world, would also be the last transatlantic liner to sail the French flag.

In the 1970s, Chantiers de l'Atlantique concentrated on building oil and methane tankers. The end of that decade saw the advent of the recession and new avenues had to be explored. The construction of large cruise liners started at the end of the 1980s with the "Sovereign of the Seas" (1987).

Since 1862, Saint-Nazaire has built at least one hundred liners. Transatlantic liners sailing to New York or Rio, freight liners serving the Far East or holiday centres dedicated to leisure, all are the product of the same industrial, technical and artistic adventure which each year sees the birth of new "floating cities".

Escal'Atlantic invites you to join a cruise through the history and legends of these great liners through an exhibition-experience built into two compartments of the former submarine base.