A harbour on the Atlantic
Saint-Nazaire is anything but a museum harbour, quite on the contrary. It is a dynamic economic platform, with the presence of an internationally renowned shipyard and an Airbus plant of Europeanwide importance. These companies have their origins in Saint-Nazaire, they are part of its history, its present, and will be essential parts of its future, just like the harbour activities. They are quite simply part of Saint-Nazaire’s identity. This is why they open their doors to you while not far from there, when you visit Escal’Atlantic, you walk in the footsteps of yesterday’s travelers…
1 – Birth of a harbour
The harbour of Saint-Nazaire was created between 1856 and 1881. It consists of two basins, called “Saint-Nazaire” and “Penhoët”. A lock between the harbour and the Loire river ensured that the docks were independent of the tide, unlike traditional harbours on the Atlantic coast where ships and boats were grounded at low tide. A closed harbour had the advantage of a constant water level, which was important for the bigger ships and steamers from the mid-19th century onwards.
This painting represents the harbour of Saint-Nazaire in 1876. The first basin is used by sailing ships and steamers. The lock allows ships to enter and leave the harbour and also makes sure that it does not empty itself twice a day. The second and bigger harbour basin is still under construction. Shipyard have taken up business nearby.
The big lock
In the late 19th century, the original lock became too small to accommodate the ships which were becoming bigger and bigger. The ocean liners which the shipyard was about to build also had impressive dimensions. So a new entry was needed, as soon as possible. In 1896, the building of a new harbour entry was decreed by law. The new lock was to be financed by the City and the Chamber of Commerce, and also by the Département and the government.
The works began in 1896. The new harbour entry was dug out right across the old Saint-Nazaire, cutting through the peninsula where the original village was located. The lock was to be 30 metres large, 286 metres long, and its depth was to reach 6 metres below the zero of nautical charts.
After eleven years of work, the new Southern lock was inaugurated on September 23, 1907, by the liner Versailles, with much merrymaking and in the presence of several politicians, among whom Aristide Briand, at the time minister of Education. Aristide Briand had spent his childhood and youth in Saint-Nazaire, as well as the early part of his career as a lawyer; he was to be granted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1926.
In 1927, the ocean liner Ile de France, built in the Saint-Nazaire shipyard, was the biggest vessel fitting into the lock. A new harbour entry was necessary for the giant liner Normandie: the “forme-écluse Joubert”, also known as the “Normandie Dock”, was built between 1928 and 1932 with subsidies from the government. Without this huge lock, it would have been impossible to build the Normandie, which was an exceptional 313 metres long, in Saint-Nazaire.
2 – The wartime harbour and a city held hostage
The harbour of Saint-Nazaire had always been perceived as a strategically important location on the Atlantic seafront. This role was confirmed during World War 2. As early as 1940, German troops invaded the town and turned the commercial harbour into a military stronghold. In 1941, the Germans began to build the submarine base, a huge fortification which swept away the office buildings and warehouses of the “French Line” (Compagnie Générale Transatlantique).
Several thousand workers had been requisitioned by the Todt Organisation. The submarine pens were completed by December 1942, and provided shelter for two U-boat fleets that were engaged in the Battle of the Atlantic.
During the war, the harbour was part of the overall defense system around the submarine pens. The fortified lock (155 metres long, 25 metres large and 14 metres high) was built in 1943/44 on the other side of the harbour basin in order to protect the former harbour entry. The roof terraces of the submarine base and the fortified lock were equipped with massive anti-aircraft warfare.
The German submarine base in Saint-Nazaire represented a strategic target for the allied air forces. As it turned out, the main victims of the 50 bombings which left the town destroyed at 85%, were the town itself and its inhabitants.
… and liberation
In the middle of a “pocket” which stretched out 30 kilometers around the town, the “fortress” Saint-Nazaire held out until the very last. Thus Saint-Nazaire was the last town in France, and even in Europe, to be liberated on May 11, 1945.
3 – Reconstruction and revival
At the end of the war, clearing and removing of the ruins and the rubble were the foremost priorities. The objectives for the reconstruction of Saint-Nazaire were clearly defined: the city centre and the railway station were to be moved towards the West, so that more space could be created for the harbour and industrial activities. The town was to be modernized and its layout was to take into account the predictable development of automobile traffic. This is how the city got separated from its port.
The new town hall was linked to the new railway station by a busy shopping street, avenue de la République, of more than a kilometer long. This North-South oriented street and the city centre were no longer in vicinity of the harbour.
The inauguration of the new town hall in 1960 symbolically concluded the city’s reconstruction.
Back to the harbour
Saint-Nazaire was a new town, which needed to redefine itself. From 1983 onwards, the main idea that emerged was to “turn the city around”, back towards the harbour and the sea. Thus in the early 1980’s, Saint-Nazaire began to give impetus to cultural and touristic politics on the harbour site. A decade later, tourists, culture lovers, artists, writers and designers were beginning to be familiar with the harbour.
In 1994, based on the strong belief that the harbour has always been its veritable raison d’être, the City launched a rehabilitation project of the industrial wasteland which separated the town from the port. This town-planning project, called Ville-Port, was meant to re-direct the city centre towards the harbour and to enhance the harbour site with cultural, economic, and touristic activities.
In the late 1990’s, the rehabilitation of the submarine base was a landmark event. Several venues were created inside the former U-boat pens, foremost of which Escal’Atlantic, the Ocean Liner Experience, an exceptional venue telling the transatlantic saga and the history of the great French ocean liners. Today’s visitors embark at the very place where liners used to depart for Central America… history (almost) has come full circle.