© Photographe inconnu. Collection Saint-Nazaire Agglomération Tourisme – Écomusée. Fonds Chantiers de l’Atlantique.
Saint-Nazaire

A transatlantic harbour

As early as 1862, Saint-Nazaire which used to be a simple village peopled by fishermen and pilots, became a transatlantic harbour with regular shipping lines to Central America. This is where the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, the famous French Line, ran its regular lines to Mexico and Panama with several stopovers in the West Indies and the Caribbean.

 

Saint-Nazaire

A transatlantic harbour

A transatlantic history

Thanks to maritime business and shipbuilding, Saint-Nazaire expanded so strongly during the second half of the 19th century, mushrooming from 800 to 30,000 inhabitants in less than 50 years, that the town was nicknamed “Little Breton California”, in reference to American boomtowns of the gold rush era.

Up to World War II, passengers and goods thus went through Saint-Nazaire before heading off to the West Indies and Central America. Port facilities were expanded and improved: the south lock gate was built (inaugurated in 1907), and then it was the turn of the huge Louis Joubert Lock (first use in 1932), allowing it to accommodate the construction of ever larger ships.

 

World War I

On June 26, 1917, the first American Expeditionary Forces arrived in France via Saint-Nazaire. The USA had joined the war, fighting alongside the Allies, and chose Saint-Nazaire as one of their most important entry harbours to France and Western European battlefields. Between 1917 and 1919, almost 198,000 troops and a daily average of 4,000 tons of material transited through Saint-Nazaire. Day in day out, some 35,000 “Nazairians” lived alongside 30,000 Americans. The Americans carried out considerable work in the harbour as well as in the city to meet their needs, contributing to the modernisation of Saint-Nazaire.

World War II

After the relative bonhomie of the American presence during World War I, people in Saint-Nazaire were in for a shock when German troops arrived in June 1940 and immediately began to build the huge submarine base, a key element of what was called the “Atlantic Wall”. Because of the strategic importance of the submarine base, the city became a choice target for the Allied air forces from 1942. Liberated only on May 11, 1945, three days after V-E Day, more than 85% of Saint-Nazaire was destroyed… and the city no longer had a reason to look towards the harbour: the prospect was no longer of elegant ocean liners but of the submarine base, stark reminder of the city’s darkest days.

Ville-Port, reconciliation between City and Port

For several decades after the war, the town, rebuilt with its back turned on the harbour, was still bearing the scar left by the submarine base, this huge 300-metre-long bunker, separating the town from its harbour. Since the last years of the 20th century however, a very important rehabilitation programme, “Ville-Port”, has succeeded in making the submarine base a part of the town and giving its identity as a maritime city back to Saint-Nazaire. What was a black spot in the urban landscape is now a major attraction: the submarine pens are the heart of the new tourist destination, sheltering the Visitor Center, cultural venues (LiFE and the VIP) and last but not least Escal’Atlantic, the “Ocean Liner Experience”, a unique immersive museum, which opened in April 2000. A walkway ramp leads up to the roof terrace which offers stunning views of the harbour and the estuary.

Nearby, a cinema, a supermarket, hundreds of apartments, a three-star hotel and Saint-Nazaire’s new Theatre, built on the site of 1860’s railway station, have turned the Ville-Port district into a very lively part of the town. Besides, the artworks created by Felice Varini and Gilles Clément for the biennial event of contemporary art Estuaire Nantes <> Saint-Nazaire have been designed for the harbour landscape and are now truly part of it.

Another

point of view