September 20, 1910
The ocean liner SS France, which sailed for the French shipping company Compagnie Generale Transatlantique (CGT), was launched into the River Loire at Saint-Nazaire, France. Approximately 2,000 people were on hand to witness the ship’s grand debut.
The France, measuring 712 feet (217 meters) in length, became one of the fastest and more popular Atlantic Ocean liners during that era. It was widely known as the “Versailles of the Atlantic” due to a décor that closely resembled what could be found at the famous royal palace outside Paris. The ship’s more opulent features included first-class interiors decorated in the style of Louis XIV (France’s long-reigning “Sun King”), a Parisian-style boulevard café, four dining rooms, several temperature-controlled wine cellars, and a grand staircase modeled after the one at the renowned mansion Hotel de Toulouse. The France also had such then-novel luxuries as a gymnasium, an elevator, and a hair salon.
The ship’s maiden voyage took place in April 1912, when she traveled under the command of Captain Léon Eugène Poncelet from her home port of Le Havre in France to New York City. This journey occurred just a few days after the tragic sinking of the Titanic in the North Atlantic, and CGT made it a point of emphasizing that there would be enough lifesaving vessels on board the France for everyone in case of an emergency. Other measures were likewise taken to help guarantee that the inaugural trip would indeed be trouble-free. The New York Times reported, “Capt. Poncelet took the new long southern course, and did not sight any ice on the voyage.”
The New York Times also noted, “Passengers spoke in high terms of the France for her steadiness.” Among those traveling on the ship was Robert Bacon, who had just finished his tour of duty as U.S. ambassador to France. (Bacon briefly served a few years earlier as U.S. secretary of state.) Bacon had ample reason to be grateful that he was returning to the United States as a passenger on the France; he originally planned to sail on the Titanic instead.
Others on board the France included a French delegation transporting the bronze sculpture of a woman (now known as “La France”) that had been created by the renowned artist Auguste Rodin. This sculpture was being delivered to upstate New York for placement at a lighthouse renamed in memory of 17th-century French explorer Samuel de Champlain.
The France’s career as an ocean liner was put on hold a couple of years later due to World War I. During that war, the vessel was used for a variety of military purposes. The ship was placed back into commercial service after the war. As the result of a worldwide economic downturn that cut deeply into transatlantic travel, however, the France was ultimately decommissioned and scrapped in the mid-1930s.
For more information on SS France, please check out https://greatships.net/france2.
A video about SS France is available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VamIVm4YkpE.