Commercial drilling for oil started in 1857 right here in the vicinity of the Pitch lake - and Trinidad rang in the oil era! A look at the first 70 years
For centuries, asphalt has been in use as a caulking material. Various civilisations all over the globe scooped up mineral oil were it was available on the surface and used it for lighting purposes. Even the healing qualities of petroleum were known for a long time. Before the creation of big manufacturing firms, warmth was provided by woodfires, light by whale-oil lamps, and wind or muscle power was used to drive the few machines people used. Transport was achieved by horse and carriage.
The industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th century in Europe was to change this low-energy lifestyle. Suddenly, enormous amounts of energy were required to run powerful machines: locomotives, drills for mining and tunnelling, iron furnaces, huge looms: all the machinery necessary in the large manufacturing firms needed fuelling. Energy-rich coal became the main source of power, and whole towns in northern Europe and the USA were created around coal mines.
In the mid-19th century, people started to become afraid that the coal resources would soon be exhausted - something that we are afraid of now with regard to the global mineral oil reserves. Whale oil was becoming scarce and expensive, because the schools of whales were shrinking. On both the European and American continents, entrepreneurs started to look for new alternatives. They were already aware of the qualities of mineral oil as both a source of energy and a lubricant for the new, fast-running machines.
In Trinidad first attempts to drill for oil had been made in 1857. The American Merrimac Oil Company struck oil at La Brea in 1857 at a depth of 280 feet. Two years later, in 1859, the well was closed down again. It had not yielded enough to make the venture viable for Merrimac, and the immediate demand for oil was still very limited. Around the same time, the first really successful oil well in the world was drilled in Pennsylvania in the USA. But whether Trinidad with its failed attempt or the USA with its more successful one - it was a technological breakthrough in terms of availability of a new energy source.
Walter Darwent was the next oil pioneer who came to our shores. He was an Englishman who had spent some years in Canada, where matters of the heart had taken him. After a stint in the Civil War in the USA as a captain of the Union army, he came to San Fernando, where he established the Paria Petroleum Company in 1865. This company included many influential men of the times: A. Ambard, J. Cumming, Leon Agostini, Charles Feez, A. Gray, P.C. O’Connor, G. Wuppermann and T.A. Finlayson.
Darwent had the right instincts. While his contemporary Conrad Stollmeyer was still convinced that asphalt from the Pitch Lake was the best raw material for the distillation of fuel, and in fact distilled 2 - 3 barrels of oil per day from the asphalt with his Trinidad Petroleum Company, Darwent maintained that oil drilled from the ground would be. In 1867, Darwent’s Paria Petroleum struck oil with three wells at Aripero and San Fernando, and soon produced up to 60 gallons of crude oil a week. Several other wells around the Pitch Lake gave a little more, and the company was able to export some oil to the USA and Great Britain. But Paria Petroleum had to succumb to the same fate as Merrimac a decade before: not enough yield, not enough demand, not enough profit.
For the rest of the century, there was no oil industry in Trinidad. Stollmeyer and Darwent experimented for a while with making combustible fuel from the pitch of the Pitch Lake. The resulting fuel proved quite successful in tests with steamers and a saw mill. In 1868, however, Darwent succumbed to yellow fever at the age of 47 years, and dreams of drilling in Trinidad were buried with him for almost 50 years.
Meanwhile, back in the USA and in Russia, oil production picked up. Large oilfields were established. Important incentives for the search for oil came from Germany: in 1876, Nikolaus Otto invented the four-stroke engine, and ten years later, Carl Friedrich Benz developed the first automobile. In 1883, Gottlieb Daimler completed the first fast-running combustion engine, and two years later he built the first motorcycle. Rudolf Diesel invented his powerful heavy oil engine in 1893, and finally Henry Ford, an American industrialist, built the first automobile factory in 1903. Within two decades, these engineering feats created a demand for combustible fuel, and the oil industries all over the world started to soar.
In Trinidad, engineer Randolph Rust and businessman John Lee Lum joined forces. They tried to get financial backing for oil exploration in south-east Trinidad. After five years they finally succeeded, when the Canadian Walkerville Whisky Company formed the Oil Exploration Syndicate of Canada. In 1902, Rust and Lee Lum struck oil several miles up the Pilote river in the thick forest at a depth of 850 feet.
“It was brought up in a primitive fashion,” writes Anthony de Verteuil in his book ‘Eight East Indian Immigrants’, quoting a newspaper account. “From an immense iron-frame scaffolding, there hung by a steel wire a peculiar dipper in the shape of a long steel tube, stopped at the lower end with a valve, which, on being let down into the well, fills with oil, and then returning full of oil, is diverted into a barrel nearby.”
Finally - oil in larger quantities, between 75 and 100 barrels per day! But that was already the beginning and the end of it; funding ran out and in 1907 Rust and Lee Lum as oil pioneers became history.
For Part II:
Around that time, British petroleum consultant called Arthur Beeby Thompson prospected oil near La Brea and Guapo. His company, Trinidad Oilfields Limited, was launched on the London stock market in 1910. This company drilled very successful wells, and in 1911, construction of the first refinery in Trinidad was started.
For south Trinidad, the budding oil fields also meant an improvement in the infrastructure. “Every well drilled on the company’s holdings in 1910-11 proved a producer, and the whole operation was modernised, supply, tankage, an extension to the railway, more roadways, and an extension to the jetty.” writes George Higgins in his history of oil exploration in Trinidad. In addition to the roads and rails, there was all of a sudden employment: unskilled labourers averaged 74 cents a day, which was better than nothing at all! Many labourers from the neighbouring islands and Guyana arrived to help bringing the ‘black gold’ to the surface. But working conditions in the swampy south were not rosy: swarms of mosquitoes and a scarce water supply in the dry season didn’t make the hard drilling work in the hot sun any easier. Malaria was dreaded, and at the end of 1913, 150 cases of yellow fever were reported, and three drillers died.
1910 - 1920 were veritable boom years in the oil industry: no less than 57 oil companies were formed between 1909 and 1912! Overseas, the car industry started to pick up, and when British home secretary Winston Churchill announced the decision to change the Royal Navy from burning coal to burning fuel in 1910, the ‘oil rush’ officially commenced in Trinidad.
On the eve of World War I in 1914, Trinidad’s annual oil production had risen to one million barrels. 80 companies had been registered - but of course not all were successful. Only financially strong companies were able to afford suitable drilling machinery and attract experienced oilmen, and thus capable of servicing the ever-increasing demand - or should we rather say ‘thirst’? - for fuel, kerosene, asphalt and lubricants.