Cruise Ship History: Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas arriving in New York aboard the French Line’s SS Champlain in 1934.

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Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas arriving in New York aboard the French Line’s SS Champlain in 1934.

The SS Champlain was a cabin class ocean liner built in 1932 for the French Line by Chantiers et Ateliers de Saint-Nazaire, Penhoët. She was sunk by a mine off La Pallice, France, in 1940 — one of the earliest passenger ship losses of World War II.

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The Grand Salon…
Although not as well remembered as her larger fleetmates, the Champlain was the first truly moderne ocean liner and embodied many design features later incorporated into the French Line’s legendary SS Normandie. Her interiors were designed by Rene Prou who decorated spaces on several earlier French Line ships, including the cabin motorship Lafayette.

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The SS Champlain…

When she made her debut in June 1932, the Champlain was the largest, fastest, and most luxurious cabin class liner afloat.

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Opera Diva Lotta Lehmann and her three Austrian-born (and anti-Nazi) stepsons, Hans, Peter and Ludwig Krause, landing in New York on the SS Champlain, 1938.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, the Champlain was pressed into evacuee work, transporting refugees from Europe to the safety of North America. This included many European Jews escaping Nazi Europe. It was on one of these return trips that the Champlain met her fate.

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Postcard from the SS Champlain…

On June 17, 1940, the liner struck a German air-laid mine while swinging at anchor in the waters off La Pallice, France, near Île de Ré, and quickly heeled over on her side.  A few days later a German U-boat fired a torpedo into the hulk — possibly to finish her off, as much of the ship lay above water level. Many sources quote a wire service report from 1940 that as many as 300 lives were lost but this is erroneous. Although there were many injuries there were only 11 or 12 fatalities. The wreck lay quite visible for over twenty years and was eventually scrapped in 1965.

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