Wednesday 17 August 2011

The Pitch Lake

asphalt (Geol.). A bituminous deposit formed in oil-bearing strata by the removal, usually through evaporation, of the volatiles. Occurs in the ‘tar pools’ of California and elsewhere and in the ‘pitch lake’ of Trinidad, whence enormous quantities are exported. (The Woodsworth Dictionary of Science and Technology, 1995)

For immigrants and visitors to Trinidad, the Pitch Lake in La Brea always was a source of wonderment. None of them would have known anything similar from their home countries, except for maybe those from alpine regions, who might have compared it to a ‘black glacier’.

Charles Kingsley, the world-famous author who visited Trinidad in 1870, starts his description of the Pitch Lake with a rather non-chalant account of what we dread nowadays as the ultimate ecological disaster: a marine oil-spill.

“The same cause that produced the Pitch Lake has produced the submarine spring of petroleum, off the shore near Point Rouge, where men can at times skim the floating oil off the surface of the sea.”

Asphalt and tar have been in use for centuries to caulk ships. Governor Chacon even shipped quantities of it to Spain in the late 1780s, supposedly for that same purpose. But what else could be done with it? The asphalt the pitch lake oozes up is a mix of mud and tar, full of mineral deposits and vegetable matter. In the 1820s, Governor Ralph Woodford used it to fuel a beacon over the Trinity Cathedral. Some three decades later, in 1850, Lord Dundonald tested the use of pitch as a fuel for the steamers that connected Port-of-Spain with the south of Trinidad - a successful experiment, which however was not put into large-scale practice.

It was around that time as well that asphalt was used as a road surface covering for the first time. Conrad Stollmeyer, a German immigrant with a great entrepreneural spirit, supplied the pitch to cover a track for the mule-trams to facilitate the transport of sugar between San Fernando and Cipero Creek. In the following years, Stollmeyer shipped several hundred tons of asphalt to Europe. In 1859, he started to distill oil for lamps from the asphalt - and to this day, Trinidadians call kerosene ‘pitch-oil’.

During the 1854 cholera epidemic, Stollmeyer brought asphalt to Port-of-Spain in large quantities to be burnt in barrels at every street corner. People of the time believed that the smoke ‘purified the air’, and it was used by the medical authorities as a means to curb cholera. The epidemic claimed nearly a fifth of the urban population, and even Stollmeyer himself almost died from it. Shortly afterwards, he instigated the then Governor, Lord Harris, to levy a tax on rum to raise funds to supply water to Port-of-Spain from the Maraval river, and that was probably his more effective contribution to fighting cholera than burning pitch!

It was not until the 1890s that asphalt came into common use for road surfacing. The first road to be covered were Clarence Street (then the upper part of Frederick Street), Frederick Street and Oxford Street. But as Michael Anthony recounts in his book ‘First in Trinidad’, horses and people were not very enthused about the smooth surfaces, which had been constructed convex for better drainage. It was only in the early 20th century and with the advent of cars that the pitch lake started to provide accepted surfacing for our roads.

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