SS La Champagne

The Ship

The ship belonged to the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique, more popularly known as the French Line. Earlier while discussing on SS La Touraine we have talked about this shipping company. La Champagne had a gross tonnage of 6726 — according to another report, 7087grt — and a dead weight of 2884 tons, with length and beam measuring 150.3 meters (493.1feet) and 15.76 meters (51.7 feet) respectively. The steamer had two funnels, four masts and single screw or propeller with a nominal speed of 17.5 knots. Her inverted, triple expansion 6 superposed cylinders engine had the capacity of 9000 horse power. La Champagne had been the first of a series of four steamers of the French Line — the others were La Bourgogne, La Gascoigne and La Bretagne. La Champagne had a capacity to accommodate 1055 passengers — 390 in the first class, 65 in the second class, and 600 in the third class. The ship was built by the Ateliers & Chantiers de St. Nazaire — Chantiers de l’ Atlantique, Penhoët (St. Nazaire), France, and was launched on 15 May 1885.

 

Her Maiden Voyage

Almost fourteen years before Swami Vivekananda would walk on her deck, La Champagne had sailed on her maiden voyage leaving Le Havre for New York on 22 May 1886. Within a year of her launch, the ship made a transatlantic trip in record time. The headline in the New York Times of 24 July 1887 reads: ‘LA CHAMPAGNE’S SPEED: THE TRIP FROM HAVRE 7 DAYS 14 HOURS AND 30 MINUTES.’ The news, smeared with nostalgic navigational procedures, followed: ‘The operator at the Ship News office had a shock yesterday afternoon when the machine ticked off “La Champagne, Fire Island, 3:48.” And as sundry old salts looked at the strip of white paper on which the record was made …. Never before had a vessel of the Compagnie Générale Transatlantique been spoken off Fire Island at that time on Saturday, and it was clear that the record from Havre was broken.’ To highlight the achievement, the same news informed of an accident that came upon La Champagne slightly above two months back: ‘It was her first trip since she started on May 7 and was beached by Capt. Traub after an avoidable collision. The steamer since then up to July 16 has been at St. Nazaire, where all the work of the French Line is done, and the result of her visit there was evidently no diminution of speed. La Champagne was the fastest steamer of the line before, having a record of 7 days and 17 hours made a year ago.’

 

The Adversities

A detailed report as to why the ship had to remain for so long at ‘St. Nazaire’ for necessary ‘work’ is available in the New York Times of 8 May 1887: ‘The General Transatlantic Line steamer La Champagne, Capt. Traub, which sailed from Havre for New York at 9 o’clock this morning [Datelined London, May 7], while returning after having been in collision, ran aground near Avranches. It is reported that 20 Italian emigrants, while attempting, regardless of discipline, to escape in the lifeboats, were drowned. The remainder of the passengers were safely landed. Later, the steamer could be floated easily.’
In 1896 a new boiler and a quadruple expansion machine were added to
La Champagne. Besides, the funnels were raised and two of her masts were removed. On other occasions a few more mishaps had also come upon La Champagne, entailing various kinds of damages and repairs that caused temporary suspension of her regular voyages. The New York Times of 1 March 1898 reads : ‘A disaster to a great ocean liner, even if entails only a detention such as has befallen La Champagne, inevitably arrests public attention. There is so much left of “the mystery of the sea” in spite of all that steam has done to dispel it that the mere announcement that a ship is overdue opens a boundless field of conjecture. People whose friends have sailed for Europe watch with eagerness the cable reports, and experience a sensible relief when the arrival of the ship is reported from the other side, who would not be disturbed if they did not hear for weeks from the same people if they had gone as long a journey overland. The uneasiness, easily growing into alarm, that is felt when an ocean steamer is even three days overdue is in fact a tribute to the perfection of the transatlantic service.’

 

The Approaching End

Following her last Le Havre — New York voyage on 21 January 1905, La Champagne was transferred to the Mexican service. Though engaged to her Mexican service, she did two transatlantic rounds again in 1906. In 1912, following a collision at Lisbon with Desna of the Royal Mail Line, she encountered minor damages. In 1913, probably chartered by the Compagnie de Navigation Sud-Atlantique, she was deployed in the St. Nazaire — Panama route. The end came upon La Champagne while she was plying in this very route. The Licking Valley Courier of Kentucky on 3 June 1915 headlined: ‘FRENCH SHIP AGROUND: LINER LA CHAMPAGNE RAN ON ROCKS OFF ST NAZAIRE: HAD 900 NEGRO TROOPS FOR SERVICE IN FRANCE — STEAMER BADLY DAMAGED’; the report followed: ‘Paris, May 29 — The French Steamer La Campagne ran aground on the French coast off St Nazaire. La Champagne formerly plied between New York and France, but several months ago she was taken over by the French government and put into the South American service. She sailed from Colon for St Nazaire on May 3, but stopped at a number of ports in the West Indies. There had been rumors that an attempt would be made to blow up the liner at sea, and when the first rumor, that she had been sunk, reached here it caused great excitement. It was learned that the 900 passengers on La Champagne were Negro troops who had been brought from French Guiana for service in France. Reports received here indicated that the liner was in a badly damaged condition and that she might not be able to get off the ground where she ran ashore.’
The
New York Times, corroborating the above news, added more on May 29: ‘A plot to blow up the La Champagne was reported last February in a dispatch from Madrid to a Paris newspaper. According to this dispatch, officers of the vessel stated, on her arrival at Corunna, Spain, from Mexico, that the plot has been frustrated by a wireless message received aboard the ship. This message was said to have conveyed the information that a man on board, believed to be a German, intended to destroy the vessel. The man was arrested, and, the dispatch said, five dynamite bombs were found in his trunk.’But though the plot could efficiently be foiled in time, the ship could hardly avoid disaster on a stormy day on 28 May 1915, when she ran aground at the entrance of Saint-Nazaire harbor and broke in two. Later the salvaged remnants of the once majestic ship was sold for demolition.

 

Interlude

Vivekananda remained in Paris for nearly three months. His second and last visit to the West finally ended when he boarded the transcontinental Orient Express from Paris on 24 October 1900, and journeyed across southwest Europe to Constantinople. En route the Swami and his entourage had a three-day stopover at Vienna before reaching Constantinople; there they stayed for ten days. They visited the places of interest everywhere. Next they went to Greece and stayed for around four days before moving to Egypt by Czar, a Russian steamer. The Czar was built in 1883 by the Armstrong, Mitchell, & Co. of Newcastle. Her port was Odessa. The Russian Steam Navigation & Trading Co., which owned the steamer, had been established in 1856 and functioned till it was nationalized in 1918 after the Russian revolution.​

In Egypt things took a turn when Vivekananda abruptly expressed a desire to cut short his tour and return to his motherland. He left Cairo for Port Tawfiq, a place close to Suez at the south end of the Suez Canal. And on the night of 26 November 1900 he boarded the Bombay bound SS Rubattino. Thus had begun his last sea voyage.

SS La Champagne of the French Line

SS La Champagne

Late Nineteenth Century Saint Nazaire Harbour

Late Nineteenth Century Saint Nazaire Port

Menu Card of La Champagne

Menu Card of La Champagne

Ateliers et Chantiers de la Loire

The Orient Express at Calais Maritime Railway Station in 1900

The Orient Express at Calais Maritime Railway Station in 1900

Poster Displaying Time Table of the Orient Express During the Winter of 1888-89

Poster Displaying Time Table of the Orient Express During the Winter of 1888-89

The first Orient Express in 1883

The first Orient Express in 1883

© : Somenath Mukherjee (See MORE )​