Now the men who made the vessels that sailed out of the town and all around the world will be remembered with a public sculpture created by artist John McKenna, with the help of local shipyard Ferguson's.
The English sculptor, who has been based in Ayrshire for the past 11 years, won a public vote for his design The Shipbuilders of Port Glasgow, and when erected it will stand on a traffic island at the end of the dual carriageway at the western entrance to the town.
"This will be the biggest project I've done in my life," he admits.
The fact that his design won the public vote, beating off competition from among others Andy Scott, creator of Falkirk's Kelpies, is particularly satisfying. He said: "I like that the people who have to live with the sculpture get to have a say."
Mr McKenna, 49, has in the past worked on public sculptures based on miners, glassblowers and even bankers. "My work is about people going to work," he added.
The sculpture, which could top 33 feet in height, will be cast in stainless steel and will complement another sculpture, Endeavour, which is shaped like a ship's hull and which stands at Fore Street in the east of the town.
Geoff Gregory, implementation manager at the urban regeneration company Riverside Inverclyde, believes the new sculpture, which may take 18 months to build and erect, will offer a chance to help enhance Port Glasgow's identity.
"What you have on the A8 is a long corridor of development that starts at Port Glasgow and runs all the way past Gourock. And the thing about sculptures is if you put them at the entrance of the town it provides a bit of definition."
Definition and also personality, he hopes.
The process to erect a public sculpture is much more complex, he says, than simply choosing a winning design. There have been consultations with councillors, community groups and tenants, the council's building control and roads department, as well as Transport Scotland, which is responsible for the traffic island itself.
"The challenges of building the thing are nothing to the challenges of getting the agreements," said Mr Gregory.
Mr McKenna says his own work is a form of metal bashing so it is appropriate for the subject matter. If planning permission is approved he is hoping to begin working on it in the spring or summer.
"I think that's a great opportunity for people in Port Glasgow to actually see it in progress."
When it does appear it will be a memorial to an industry that once defined the Clyde.
"Stainless steel can be around for 120 years," said Mr McKenna. "This will be around a long time after I'm gone. In 120 years when maybe all the industries in Port Glasgow are completely different this will be a historical perspective: 'This is what we used to do once'."
Mr Gregory agrees. "Forget about the tonnages and percentages. An amazing amount of stuff went out of Port Glasgow. The town has got something to be really proud of."