The harbour basin
Let’s go down the rue de l’Ecluse which runs parallel to the main lock. The big tide gate is 693-feet long, 99-feet wide and 20-feet deep. It took 11 years to build, from 1896 to 1907. The inauguration in 1907 was celebrated with much pomp, long speeches and endless banquets. This new lock at last made it easy for bigger and bigger ships to call at Saint-Nazaire, but it also cut the original village in two, severing it from the mainland. Even today the “Petit Maroc”, as this part of town is called, literally becomes an island when all the harbour entrances are opened.
An imposing building called… “le Building” awaits us at the far end of the lock. It was built in the early 1950’s and was the first building of that size in Saint-Nazaire. After much sneering, it was finally accepted by the city dwellers. The flats with their outstanding view over the harbour and the bay are nowadays very popular.
The lock and the harbour basin are separated by an astonishing bridge. Its powerful mechanism causes several dozen meters of street to rise vertically, pointing to the sky, when a ship sails in or out of the harbour. We leave the bridge on our left and walk around the harbour basin on the right, along quai Demange.
This basin, built between 1848 and 1856, was the starting point for liners running regular lines to Central America, from 1862 onwards. The famous Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, or French Line, made Saint-Nazaire its base for shipping lines to and from Mexico, Panama, Cuba… The ships and their passengers seem to have been part of the town’s attractions as one can read in a booklet from the 1860’s: “Saint-Nazaire is a town with a thousand pleasures: you can go to plays, concerts, balls, meet good society and enjoy views of the sea and of a wonderful harbour with continuous and curious crowds of passengers from all parts of the world.”
The facilities for overseas passengers were located at the very place where the German army, during World War II, built the huge submarine bunker, as a protection for the U-boats.