Very rare mid-19th-century French prospectus promoting investment in the Compagnie Franco-Americaine, which proposed to operate transatlantic passenger steamers between L’Orient and Norfolk, Virginia. With three seemingly unrecorded maps charting the journey from Lorient in Brittany to Norfolk, Virginia, and thence via railroad into the interior of the United States.
The opening of the American West in general and the California Gold Rush in particular, the disruption caused by the Revolutions of 1848, and the development of steam-powered ocean-going vessels all combined to create a window of opportunity for entrepreneurs. Any number of companies attempted to enter into the market for trans-Atlantic steam transport, including the Compagnie Franco-Américaine des Navires a vapeur de la Chesapeake. Despite the glowing language of this prospectus, however, I find no certain record that the Compagnie ever got off the ground. There is record of a Compagnie Franco-Américaine, but established only in 1856 for service between Havre, New York, Havana, New Orleans and Brazil.
The prospectus extolls Virginia’s beauty, its central location, historical importance as the home state of presidents, varied geography, agricultural and mineralogical resources, and Virginians’ enterprising spirit and proclivity for political involvement, but is also critical of the state’s recent neglect of industry and commerce. The document suggests that investment in the Compagnie Franco-Américaine might help both Virginia and Brittany awaken from their economic slumber. Space is given to enumerating advantages of steam ships over sailing vessels in terms of cargo capacity, safety, speed, and reliability; to describing the rail lines leading into the American west; and to analyzing the rise in German immigration after the Revolution of 1848 as offering a steady customer base. Full calculations of projected expenses and revenues of the initial series of voyages are provided.
The prospectus includes three interesting maps, all apparently unrecorded. They are as follows:
- Planisphère indiquant la route directe de Lorient à San Francisco, par Norfolk. Lith. Napoléon Chaix & Cie., Paris.
- Plan de la rade de Lorient. Extrait de la Carte hydrographique de Beautemps-Beaupré. Lith. C. Oberthur, à Rennes.
- Rail Road Map of the United States Showing the routes of all the rail roads in progress, Constructed et Proposed 1851. Compagnie Franco-Américaine des Bateaux à vapeur de la Chesapeake par Lorient-Norfolk. Lith. Napoléon Chaix & Cie., Paris.
The first map shows the route of from Eastern and Central Europe via Lorient across the Atlantic to Norfolk and then overland to San Francisco (The California gold rush of 1849 was, of course still much ongoing at the time this prospectus as printed.) The second map depicts the harbor at Lorient and has been annotated in manuscript and hand colored to indicate the location of the proposed docks of the Chesapeake Line Company. It gives every appearance of having been copied or extracted from another map and adapted to the present purpose.
The third map is of particular interest. It is adapted from an American map of similar title issued in 1851, possibly in New Orleans. As with the prototype, it depicts the eastern U. S. railway network in the eastern half of the United States, though the map has been simplified by the elimination of state boundaries as well as the omission of some place names and addition of others. On this French edition, though, 11 parcels of land are added in Virginia, hand-colored in yellow and said to be owned by the Chesapeake Line Company.
We have located only three copies of this prospectus in public collections, but at least two of these may lack the maps, suggesting the present example is an especially rare complete copy, or perhaps a copy extra-illustrated with maps first used in other contexts. Militating against this latter possibility, however, is that all three maps are unrecorded in the usual bibliographic sources.
As of October 2019 OCLC 6726969 locates copies at the Library of Virginia and University of Virginia, but with no mention of maps (though they are in fact present in the LVA copy) and with 13 rather than 15pp as here. CCfr (Catalog collectif de France) lists a single copy, held by the Bibliothèque municipale d’étude et de conservation in Besançon, also with no mention of maps. Not in Howes, Sabin or Streeter. Neither CCfr nor OCLC lists any of the three maps individually, and the Rail Road Map of the United States is not noted in Modelski, Railroad Maps of the United States; Phillips, Maps of America; or Rumsey.