Nantes is the capital of the Loire-Atlantique department in the Pays de la Loire region of western France. Lying at the head of the Loire River estuary, it is 56 kilometers from the Bay of Biscay off the Atlantic Ocean. It is the fifth biggest city in France, and about 805 thousand people lived in the Nantes metropolitan area in 2008. In 2004, Time magazine called Nantes the most livable city in Europe. It is the home of the world-famous science-fiction writer, Jules Verne.
With a strong ship-building and fishing tradition, Saint Nazaire is about 50 kilometers west-northwest of Nantes at the mouth of the Loire River. The city’s economy is built on the port. While its commercial fishing fleet is no longer important, a small fleet of subsistence fishers continues to operate there. In 1999, almost 66 thousand people called Saint Nazaire home.
In the 2nd Century AD, the Roman Portus Namnetum was a transit point for goods arriving by sea and carried upriver. Cargoes were diverse and included iron and tin, pottery, marble, salt, cereals, grains, wines from Italy, and Iberian vegetable oils. From the late 3rd Century until the 10th Century, the port was plagued with invasions, yet the port remained active until traffic began to decline in the 7th Century.
By the 10th Century, cargo traffic was still limited to small vessels carrying salt and salted meat or fish and wine, and only Norse vessels sailed the estuary. Due to increased trade in salt and wine, the port began to grow again in the 11th and 12th Centuries. The port was given a boost in 1343 when a salt tax was established designating the Loire River as the only waterway to carry salt from Brittany.
As the end of the Middle Ages approached, foreign merchants became established in the Port of Nantes-Saint Nazaire. During the 14th Century, Nantes became a military port to defend the Estuary from foreign incursions. To the end of the 15th Century, coastal shipping was limited to local trade.
In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the fish trade made Nantes a major port in the region. By 1704, the Port of Nantes had become France’s busiest port, and it held that position throughout the century. The Revolution of 1789 brought a blockade to the port that ended external trade for a time.
In 1808, Napoleon I commissioned an engineering study on the possibility of building a port at the site of a small fishing village at Saint Nazaire, and the decision to build the port was made in 1838.
Free trade returned to the Port of Nantes in 1840, and the industrial age brought coal, steamships, and competition from railroads. In 1846, the Orleans Railway Company bought the Steamboat Company, and steamboats no longer operated in the Port of Nantes. In 1845, the first inner harbor wet dock project was approved for the Port of Saint Nazaire, and the first vessel entered the port in 1856.
In 1903, the city of Nantes undertook an engineering study on the feasibility of expanding the riverbed to give Nantes access to ocean-going trade. It became clear that the city needed a port at the mouth of the Loire, and it chose Saint Nazaire as a site for its new port.
In 1917, a new landing stage was constructed at the Port of Saint Nazaire for use by the army of the United States’ engagement in World War I. In 1931, the ANTAR refinery was built in nearby Donges, creating a new port sector about 12 kilometers each of Saint Nazaire on the Loire. A new shipping channel to Donges was created in 1933 that now serves facilities in Donges and Montoir.
In 1969, a second berth was constructed in the Port of Nantes at Chevire, and 1974, the Quay of Roche Maurice was added to the industrial Zone de Chevire Upstream. In 1976, a third berth was added to serve the movement of forest products in the industrial zone, and the Roche Maurice quay was extended to support the Sonastock silo. In 1982, the Wilson Quay was constructed with a fruit terminal.
In 1976, a 400-ton heavy lift derrick came into operation at the Port of Saint Nazaire, allowing the port to receive heavy-lift cargoes. A cold storage terminal was added in 1984 with the redevelopment of the Commerce Quay at Nazaire. From 1991 until 1995, Nazaire’s inner harbor access was automated, and its dry docks were renovated. In 1994, the fruit terminal at the Port of Nazaire was opened.
In 2000, the Atlantic Port Authority of Nantes-Saint Nazaire acquired the Chevire Zone from the City of Nantes and started work to extend the quays. In 2001, the first company moved to the Chevire Industrial Zone.