1864 - 1899
looking back at the 20th century, there are a few shipping companies
that stand out as more prominent that others. The French Line – or the
Compagnie Générale Transatlantique (CGT) – is undoubtedly
one of those companies. During its lifetime, this shipping line became
famous for its marvellous cuisine, ambience and not to mention its fantastic
ships. Such wonderful creations like Île de France, Normandie
and the third France made up the very best the French Line had to
offer, but the story of this fabled company had started already back in
in 1854 by the two brothers Émile and Isaac Péreire, the
company was first known as the Compagnie Générale Maritime.
In 1861, the mail-carrying steamship side of the company was renamed Compagnie
Générale Transatlantique, and Isaac’s son Eugene Péreire
was appointed President.
government was eager to see a competitive French shipping line on the North
Atlantic, and therefore granted CGT a mail contract for one sailing per
month. The company’s directors saw this as a perfect opportunity to expand
the business, and eight
identical new ships were commissioned
for the transatlantic trade. The French Ministry of Marine wanted all of
the new ships to be built in France, but the country did not yet have sufficient
capacity for this. So, three ships were ordered from the Glasgow yards
of John Scott & Co. The remaining five were to be built at the French
Chantiers de l’Atlantique, at St Nazaire, though under direction of John
Scott & Co. On October 21st, the contract for the three
first ships was signed.
as originally built.
soon began on the new ships. They were designed by John Scott & Co.,
under supervision of the French engineer Éugene Flachat, to compete
with Cunard’s Persia – holder of the Blue Riband at the time. Accordingly,
they were designed with paddle wheels, just as Cunard’s champion. CGT had
also made it clear that they wanted sturdy ships, and for this the new
ships were constructed with their frames a mere 20 inches, or 50 centimetres,
apart. At a little more than 3,000 gross tons, the size of the new ships
was constricted by the capacity of the docks at Le Havre.
later, the first of the eight new ships was ready for her launch. On June
17th 1863, she was given the name Washington, and sent
down the ways to enter the water for the very first time. The launch was
a success, and the work on fitting the ship out could soon begin.
finished, the Washington was to go through her sea trials before
entering commercial service. These turned out completely satisfactory,
and the new ship had managed to achieve a speed of 13.3 knots. At the time,
Cunard’s Persia and Scotia ruled the North Atlantic with
a service speed of 13.5 knots.
a year to the day after her launch, the Washington was ready to
set out on her premier crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. On June 15th
1864, the brand new vessel slipped her moorings and steamed out of Le Havre,
bound for New York with 67 passengers on board. This was to become the
company’s prime route for more than a century.
the ship bore the typical appearance of her day. Although a steamship,
one could still make out a resemblance to the sailing vessels of old. Her
two masts were capable of taking sails – with a total sail area of 1,885
square feet – should the engines fail to work properly. There was not much
of a superstructure, and the bridge was just that – a simple bridge between
the two paddle wheels. Nevertheless, just 15 feet shorter than Cunard’s
Persia, the Washington must have been an impressing site.
On the inside, every effort had been made to provide the passengers with
as comfortable a ship as possible. This ship, and her sisters, was soon
to set a French standard for good food and comfort.
voyage continued for the following 13 ½ days, and the ship arrived
in New York harbour on June 28th, having averaged a speed of
13 knots and consumed 125 tons of coal each day. The French transatlantic
run was born.
had been a few disappointments. John Scott & Co. had built the Washington
with open deck rails. But the North Atlantic can be treacherous, and CGT
decided to fit the ship with solid bulwarks. This was done after only a
the Washington settled into her service for CGT, becoming more and
more acquainted with the swell of the Atlantic. However, on October 26th
1864 she suffered a serious mishap when she collided with a Dutch sailing
vessel off Alderney. Following this incident, she was forced to put into
Cherbourg instead of Le Havre.
of 1868 came to mean an important event for the Washington. Although
it had been the matter of discussion and speculation for more than two
decades, it had by now been more or less proven that the propeller was
superior – and far more economical – than the conventional paddle wheels.
With this is mind, CGT made the major decision to progressively have their
fleet converted. Consequently, Washington was sent to the Glasgow
yards of Robert Napier & Sons to be rebuilt with propellers.
original engines were replaced with two new two-cylinder single expansion
engines, geared to twin propellers. In April that year she re-emerged with
a slightly higher gross tonnage of 3,408 tons. The refit had changed the
ship’s looks dramatically, with
a more accentuated superstructure
and a modern bridge. A mizzen mast had also been added to improve her sailing
capabilities, which goes to testify that the world did not yet fully trust
the steam engine. Actually, with this refit the Washington became the first
twin-screw liner on the North Atlantic. This honour is often erroneously
given to the Inman & International liner City of New York –
which was ‘only’ the first transatlantic ship that was originally built
with two propellers.
|Washington in St Nazaire,
after her extensive refit in 1868.
16th 1868, the Washington was back in service, but by
now she had been transferred to CGT’s St Nazaire-West Indies run. She remained
on this route until October 1871, when she was put back on the North Atlantic
to fill the gap of her sister, Lafayette, which had been damaged
by fire at Le Havre. The new type of propulsion gave her a service speed
of 13.75 knots, burning only 110 tons of coal per day.
the winter of 1872-1873, Washington was taken in to have her machinery
renewed. This refit resulted in her being more economic to operate, but
it also gave her a slower service speed of only 11 knots. In June of 1874
she resumed her sailings to New York, but there was a novelty in her itinerary.
From now on, she was put on the West Indies run in the winter season. This
work continued through the following nine years, and in 1883 the Washington
was once again sent to go through a refit, this time to be modernised at
Washington was reverted to CGT’s St Nazaire-Colon service. But the
company still saw it as meaningful to invest in her, and she was fitted
with electric lighting during one of her overhauls. Two years later, the
ship suffered an unnecessary accident. While at her dock at St Nazaire,
someone had left a valve open. The ship took on water and settled on the
bottom. The ship was pumped dry and saved.
of 1896, the now ageing Washington was given new boilers. Not brand
new though, this set of boilers had been taken from the Lafayette,
which had been refitted with triple-expansion engines a few years ago.
By the next summer, the ship was back in service at St Nazaire.
as history would have it, her end was nigh. In February of 1899, while
leaving Penhoët, she hit a swing bridge as it opened for her exit.
Although the swing bridge was the one who took the most damage by the collision,
this may have marked the beginning of the end for the old Washington.
In December that year, she was sold for 320,000 French Francs to scrappers
at Marseilles, and she was cut up the following year.
|The Washington - Specifications:
||345 feet (105.4 m)
||43 feet (13.1 m)
||Originally 3,204 gross
tons, 3,408 tons after 1868 refit.
||2 x 1 cylinder simple
expansion engines. Originally powered by paddle wheels. Engines renewed
and geared to two propellers during the 1868 refit.