Pitch Lake

Beez Neez now Chy Whella
Big Bear and Pepe Millard
Tue 20 Oct 2009 20:01
La Brea Pitch Lake
We got up expecting to do a full day of jobs, but, Jessie radioed that he had a trip to the Pitch Lake, Temple on the Sea and Hanuman Murti, jobs soon postponed and off we went. After about an hour of driving and entertaining us Jessie suggested "doubles", the other six on the bus all jumped at the chance. So Jessie bought for us all. While he was waiting for us - time for a quick sweep of his very clean and posh maxi taxi(we are not allowed to eat on board, except for ice-cream at the end of a trip if we get our quiz answers correct). 
Two patties of dough, a couple of scoops of curried chick peas add a little 'hot stuff' and 30p later and in super fast time a double is ready to eat. Sadly for me Bear went back for a second one - I'll come back to this after lunch of goat roti. All happily back on the bus heading to the first proper stop. We loved the directions: From Port of Spain, take the Uriah and Solomon Highways through to the San Fernando (second and only other city on Trinidad) Bypass. Take the South Trunk Road through Mosquito Creek. Then take the Southern Main Road through Otaheite, Aripero, Rousillac and then into La Brea. Follow signs to the Pitch Lake.
We were welcomed by our guide Ameena, knowing Jessie would take a hundred phone calls and try unsuccessfully to 'catch forty winks' off we went with our guide.
The Pitch Lake has been called many names by numerous settlers in Trinidad. It was called Piche by the Amerindians - meaning pitch. The Spanish called it Tierra de Brea which means Land of Pitch and the English referred to it as Pitch Lake. Sir Walter Raleigh, in March 1595, during his search for El Dorado, he reportedly used the pitch from here as caulking for his leaking ships and declared it "most excellently goode". The first records of its introduction to Europe was in 1617, on Raleigh's second attempt to find El Dorado, he took samples back to England. 
Several Amerindian legends surround the birth of the Pitch Lake. According to one folk tale, the Lake was a punishment from the Gods. This vengeance was dealt to the Chaima Indians who cooked and ate humming birds, which were considered sacred, while celebrating a victory over another tribe. This so angered the Gods who caused the earth to open up and swallow the entire village, leaving in its place molten pitch. As if to prove the legend true, Amerindian pottery has been recovered from the lake, the odd human skeleton, bones from the giant sloth and a Mastodons tooth. The humming bird can be seen fluttering around the lake........
The lake may not look much from the car park but we knew this was one of only three natural asphalt lakes in the world.
The Pitch Lake is the world's largest commercial deposit of natural asphalt. It was re-discovered in 1595 by Sir Walter Raleigh who repaired his ships. It covers approximately one hundred acres and is about two hundred and fifty feet deep at the centre. The lake holds about ten million tonnes of asphalt, geologists have surveyed the area and ninety tons can be "harvested" or mined every working day allowing the renewable reserve to last for about the next four hundred years.
Ameena pointed to the little hut with the green roof. This was the telephone exchange box that used to be level with the road next to the telegraph poles when it was built in 1976. Some years ago over harvesting of the pitch lake caused the level to drop dramatically and the surrounding area has become unstable.
We had arrived during the workers lunch break - 11 'til 12, some were resting in the shade of one of the cashew trees that line the path to the lake. The trees grew from seeds thrown by workers generations ago.
In 1792, Governor Jose Maria Chacon of Spain was orderred to set up a refinery near the pitch lake so that the refined pitch could be sent to Spain. This was a short lived industry as Spain lost Trinidad to the English in 1797, the Spaniards were forced to leave the island leaving only their name for the area - La Brea. In 1805, the British Admiral Alexander Cochrane was asked to examine and report on the Pitch Lake, he reported that the pitch had to be mixed with "tar and oil before it became useful". In 1888 the British Government awarded a single concession to mine the Pitch Lake to an American A. L. Barber - together with several other businessmen, formed the Trinidad Lake Asphalt Company.
Around the edge of the lake itself the pitch contains 30% water, 30% minerals and the rest Bitchumen. Sulphur stains make for pretty colours. Bear cooling his feet. Methane bubbles where the lake "breathes".
There have been countless conflicting theories on the origin of the Pitch Lake. One such theory states two faults exist which intersect at the lake and that crude oil seeps from the fault line in the limestone below the earth. Another belief is that the lake was at one time a huge mud volcano from which muddy asphaltic oil seeped. The lighter portion of the oil and mud mixture evaporated over centuries and left the thick viscous residue - asphalt - which is what we see today. Our outing gave us the impression we were walking on a living thing. It burps, hisses and consumes everything around it.
We saw a tree stump that had risen to the top. Ameena poked her finger through the surface to show how soft it is and we peeled back an area of crust to expose the purer soft pitch.
"Numerous pieces of wood which, being involved in the pitch, are constantly coming to the surface... Whence do they come? have they been blown on to the lake, or left by man? or are they fossil trees, integral parts of the vegetable stratum below which is continually rolling upward?... Stranger still it did seem to us, when we dipped our hands into the liquid pitch, to find that it did not soil the fingers... It can be scraped up, moulded into any shape you will... but nothing is left on the hand save some gray mud and water. This very abundance of earthy matter it is which, while it keeps the pitch from soiling, makes it far less valuable than it were it pure". (Charles Kingsley, 1871)
Walking a bit further we were shown that just below the ordinary looking surface was really liquid pitch that acts like quick sand if you stray over it, this makes the lake potentially dangerous, meaning you have to follow exactly where your guide leads. Bear had a dabble. We walked over deep cracks and seams. Most of the lake is solid enough to walk on except for the area in the centre of the lake known as "the Mother of the Lake". This is the self replenishing part that is always active. Ameena poked a stick into one of the cracks below water and came up with more liquid pitch. In 1959 a worker was sucked down to chest height and was lucky to survive the experience.
The processing factory.
Every day the mined pitch is taken to the processing factory to be purified. For every one hundred and eighty tons that go into the red silo - one hundred and forty two tons comes out pure. The pitch is heated to one hundred degrees centigrade to burn out the impurities. The factory is very proud that the area in front of the gates of Buckingham Palace came directly from this Trinidadian wonder. England and Germany used to be the biggest customers but now Japan and China outbuy - they request their purchases to arrive in pellet form in sacks.
Ameena took a picture of us. The area of highest visible sulphur is where people come to bathe to soothe arthritis, skin conditions and rheumatism. The tracks of the vehicles cut into the soft surface prove they must keep moving or risk sinking into the pitch. 
The area makes for some very different pictures, we saw turkey vulture, white ibis, green backed heron, many dragonflies, butterflies, stunning blue water lilies and interesting landscapes. The area had that wonderful smell of newly laid road, until you got too close to the sulphur pong - thankfully not too much of the rotten egg compared to the pitch.
Time to look around the newly opened museum that is above the very smart 'restrooms'. The origins of the asphalt deposits of the Pitch Lake date back to the Barremian age in the early Cretacious period - circa 121-127 million years ago. Gases, oils and water were chemically separated from the rock material, and folding movements of the earth's crust resulted in asphaltic viscous oil to flow onto the muddy sea floor, where it mixed with plant and other mineral matter as well as water. Due to the viscosity, this mix held together and gradually formed an inverted cone. After it had grown about two thousand feet, it is assumed that this cone was buried and not much seepage of the viscous oil took place.
In 1838, two ships chartered by R.T. Claridge formed probably the first substantial cargo of pitch in Trinidad's history. Great Britain imported large amounts from this lake in the first half of the 19th Century, mainly to improve the "macadam" roads, turning them into "tarmacadam" or "tarmac" through the application of pitch.
The blind Scotsman John Metcalfe had been the first in the world to implement asphalt on roads in 1717 when he built 180 miles of roads in Yorkshire. In 1757, another Scotsman Thomas Telford perfected the method of road building with broken stones. In that same year, a third Scotsman called John McAdam, designed roads using broken stones laid very tightly and evenly, forming a harder surface. These were the famous McAdam roads, they were more economic than the Telford design and became the norm. In 1813 the Port of Spain built many macadam roads. Hot tar was used in England as early as 1820.
In a letter to the Earl of Dundonald, dated the 25th of April 1857, Conrad Frederick Stollmeyer reported that "Dr Philbricks's Company, associated with Hiram Hyde of Halifax, Nova Scotia and Samuel Dower of Boston, also makes oil from pitch...and give specific name to the oil... 'Trinidad Oil'... Philbrick et al wish to make the oil in Boston.
Born in 1813 in the ancient city of Ulm, Germany, Conrad Stollmeyer migrated to the US in 1833 and came out to Trinidad in 1845 on his way to Venezuela. However, he was persuaded to stay in Trinidad, where he became interested in the possibilities of asphalt. From 1849 onwards he looked after the Earl of Dundonald's holdings at La Brea, digging asphalt from the Pitch Lake and shipping it to the US and Europe for the manufacture of the newly invented Kerosine, which was then named "Trinidad Oil".
Conrad Stollmeyer, Lord Dundonald and Abraham Gesner
Gesner distilled his first kerosine from La Brea pitch, which he obtained from his friend Thomas Cochrane, 10th Earl of Dundonald, then the licensee to mine the lake. Kerosine was revolutionary. It changed history and quickened the march into modern times. Pitch from this lake became the raw material for the first modern petrochemical product - Kerosine. Home and street lighting on a very wide scale was introduced to the town of Port of Spain and to outlying districts and villages, causing an upgrade of social life and more security. Kerosine also improved family life, used in lamps and stoves, it brought a better standard of living for all, especially the poor. During the cholera epidemic the burning of pitch in barrels at street corners was erroneously thought to be a preventative for the disease, which was believed to be air-borne. Pitch was experimented with as a fertiliser because it was thought to be the reason for this areas particular fertile land. While the energy sector in Trinidad never employed more than a couple of thousand people at any point in time, its existence fostered a culture of education among Trinidadians. Pitch, oil, natural gas and petrochemicals required university-trained engineers and scientists as well as skilled white and blue collar workers.
Pitch was used as a sealant to cover the reed basket in which the baby Moses was concealed among the reeds of the Nile Exodus 2:3. Pitch in Antiquity. The Tower of Babel.
The Giant Sloth (glossotherium harlani) standing in excess of fourteen feet would have lumbered through the ancient woods of Trinidad in times past. Indeed, its huge bones, described as fossils, have been found here. Folklorist Honore Ernest Tardieu who died in 1969 has suggested that the memory of this huge, awesome but bovine creature may have been passed along in stories and songs of the ancient tribal peoples, who made their home here. This, Monsieur Tardieu suggested, might have given rise to the myth of Maitre Bois, the Master and Father of the Forest, Papa Bois, who is described as a huge, hairy creature. The character Papa Bois as protector of the animals was written by the folklorist Alfredo Codallo in 1954. 
As we drove away from the site toward our roti lunch, we saw the damage to roads and houses caused by the shifting pitch. Oozing additions to the gardens in the area.