Friday, 29 May 2020

Welcome to the Virtual Museum of the Pitch Lake at La Brea

An exhibition mounted at the Visitor Centre at the Pitch Lake in La Brea in memory all who toiled in the oil & asphalt industries of Trinidad. 


The Visitor Centre at the La Brea Pitch Lake, where the Museum takes up the entire first floor.

During these times of the Coronavirus pandemic, when schools in Trinidad and Tobago and all over the world are closed, we would like to take visitors, teachers and students on a virtual tour of the  Pitch Lake Museum, which is located at La Brea in Trinidad. It is on the first floor of the visitor facility at the Pitch Lake and it overlooks the lake itself. The facility has an open-air, outdoor character to it, integrating beautiful views of nature with the novelty of the various exhibits.

You can double-click on the images and enlarge them, and download them for the information contained in them. We hope that you will take the virtual tour and get a lot of information about the Pitch Lake, the asphalt industry, and the people and events that shaped it over the years! The text that accompanies the visuals on this blog post will act as your "virtual tour guide".


Coming up the stairs, the visitor can interact with this welcoming panel, which, when opened, reveals the location and names of all the pitch lake locations in the world - of which there are not many!  The La Brea pitch lake is truly one of the wonders of the world, a very very special place.



This information panel as you enter the room gives an outline of the exhibit.


The Museum was commissioned in two phases. The first phase was opened to the public in March 2009, and the second phase in September 2016 by the Minister of Tourism, the Hon. Shamfa Cudjoe. The content and design was conceptualised by Gérard Besson using images from the Paria Publishing Archives. An important input was provided from Dr. Arie Boomert's archeological research into and books about pre-historic Trinidad. Dr. Boomert was the resident archaeologist at the UWI in the 1980s. The building of the exhibits was done by Mr. Brian Lyons and his team.  Artefacts were collected from various sources, some in the area, and models of the El Dorado figurine and gold coins were made by Alice Besson and Lea Löwe.


The Museum under construction.

Installation in progress of the First People Display on the curved western wall.


The museum has three elements: anthropological/archeological (demonstrating the settlement of the First People from the Orinoco River delta at La Brea in Trinidad), historical (the impact of the myth of El Dorado and the arrival at the Pitch Lake at La Brea of Sir Walter Raleigh, first exporter of Trinidad’s petroleum products), and technological and social (the growth, development and social and financial impact of the Pitch Lake on the society of Trinidad and Tobago).

So let us begin at the beginning, literally, of time, long before humans roamed the islands of Trinidad and Tobago and the Giant Sloth made its prehistoric way through the forested canopy of the jungle that covered the islands.

Double-click on the images to enlarge and read them!

Part 1: The Archeological/Anthropological Exhibit


The earliest image of the Pitch Lake, a drawing by Richard Bridgens from the 1820s, is combined with the type of flora and fauna that would have inhabited the earth when the Pitch Lake at La Brea was created, a long time before human beings appeared in nature.

From time to time, the Pitch Lake bubbles up fossilised remains of prehistoric creatures. One of those was bones the giant sloth, a huge bovine animal that stood up to 14 ft high. Sightings of the last of those before they were hunted to extinction may have given rise to the stories of Papa Bois, protector of the forest, in Trinidad and Tobago's folklore.

Pitch, also called asphalt or bitumen, was known in biblical times in some parts of the world. It was used by the alchemists of the Old World hundreds of years ago for various purposes.

The installations in this exhibit are hung from rafters in the ceiling and fixed to the hardwood floor with steel wires, giving the space an airy feel and allowing for the natural breeze to sweep through.

Installation of framed scenes of the usage of pitch in antiquity.


The Pitch Lake is a symbol of a world that ended and began again. This segment showcases Trinidad and Tobago’s First People. The First People had a creation myth that suggest the origin of the lake, linking the extinction or near-extinction of the hummingbird with the formation of the pitch. This myth, recorded by historian E.L. Joseph in 1837 explains why Trinidad is called “Land of the Hummingbird”.

Detail of the First People display as it was during Phase 1 of the Museum, showing pre-columbian pottery sherds, weaving techniques and the story of the hummingbird. 

Information panel about the pottery sherds of the First People.

The curved wall at the western end includes an installation, at right, of framed bits of asphalt from the Lake.

The Pitch Lake is remembered from ancient times in myths and legends handed down from our island’s Amerindian past. Edward Joseph, who wrote Trinidad's first history in 1837 tell's us of a time before the lake came into existence, when the entire area was covered with the sweetest and most luxurious pineapples imaginable, through which beautiful hummingbirds, variously coloured, flew and displayed their iridescence in the brilliant sunshine.

The story goes on to say that there came a time when strangers from another shore arrived and decimated the hummingbirds, turning their plumage into hats and capes. The Great Spirit of Trinidad rose up and overturned the pineapple field, taking away the strangers forever, and replacing it with a lake of asphalt. The Great Spirit had been angered, for the hummingbirds were no less than the souls of the ancestors of the tribal people long dead, who had returned as hummingbirds.

In fact, the island of Trinidad was known in olden times as “Iere”, Land of the Hummingbird. This motif is remembered today on Trinidad and Tobago’s coat of arms and is displayed on the badges of our protective services. 

Adaptation of the story of the origins of the Pitch Lake, as old to E.L. Joseph in 1834 by one Mr. Trinidado. Inset is a sketch of a settlement of the First People, who lived a nomadic lifestyle. All their architecture was basically biodegradable. 

                  As you come around the curve, you will be immersed in the life of the First People.

Scenes of domesticity of the First People



Overview of the First People Exhibit to which a selection of actual, prehistoric pottery sherds was added. These illustrations were done by Edward Goodall in 1841. He accompanied the 1841 - 1843 expedition to Guiana led by explorer-scientist Sir Robert Schomburgk.

The exhibit of woven artefacts and pottery,  giving a glimpse of the home life of the First People.




In the 16 century, the era of the First People in Trinidad and Tobago slowly came to an end, as they were decimated by imported diseases, like measles, and the cruelty imposed upon them by the introduction of "civilasition".  From then on, Trinidad and the Pitch Lake at La Brea entered the historically documented era, and we follow events and personalities as they interface with the Lake in the historical section of the exhibit.

View of the interior of the Museum.

View of the eastern end of the Museum.

Double-click on the images to enlarge and read them!

Part 2: The Historical Exhibit


To begin, the romantic story of Sir Walter Raleigh is told, how he stopped at the Pitch Lake on his quest for El Dorado, the legendary Golden Man and his city go gold on the South American mainland, to caulk his ship (the “Lion’s Whelp”) with pitch from the Pitch Lake. Raleigh thus became the first “exporter” of a petroleum product from our shores. It is also of significance that Raleigh exported from Tobago the first samples of tobacco, causing that island to be called on the most ancient maps “Tobacco” that would eventually be changed to “Tobago”. Raleigh is also of interest in the sense that he liberated from Spanish chains five caciques or kings of Trinidad, who had been held in captivity at St. Joseph, the ancient capital.

A depiction of Sir Walter Raleigh and his son "Wat". Raleigh was accompanied by his son Walter on the expedition to the Orinoco River in search of El Dorado. Wat, as Walter was known, was killed during an encounter with a Spanish musketeer on the banks of the Orinoco.

The Sir Walter Raleigh exhibition case.

Detail from the Sir Walter Raleigh exhibition case. In the centre a reproduction of the El Dorado. The imagination of Western Europe was excited by the idea of fabulous riches existing in hidden civilisations in the upper reaches of the Orinoco river system of South America. Several explorers, both Spanish and English, were to lose their lives in pursuit of gold.

El Dorado - the myth of the Golden Man may have sprung from the story of a cacique whose naked body was painted with a resin and theen covered in gold dust in a religious ceremony.
Sir Walter Raleigh's Map of the Orinoco River System. Following information gleaned from Spanish explorers and Carib traditions, Sir Walter produced a map of what is now Venezuela and the Guyanas, which was to a considerable extent imaginary.



Detail from the El Dorado exhibit, depicting models of gold bars and gold coins. Many objects made of gold stolen or bartered for trinkets from the tribal people were melted down, turned into bullion (gold bars) and exported to Europe.

SirWalter Raleigh being shown a sample of pitch by a companion at La Brea. Bringing a ship's boat ashore at La Brea, Raleigh examines pitch taken from the Pitch Lake and proclaims it useful to caulk his ships.
The Town of Port of Spain or Puerto de los Hispanioles was set on fire by Raleigh on his first expedition to Trinidad and the Orinoco in 1595, when the Spanish governor Don Antonio de Berrio was capture by him and taken up the Orinoco river as a guide to El Dorado.

Sir Walter Raleigh came to Trinidad in 1617 on his last voyage to the New World in search of the fabled El Dorado, the Golden Man who was king of a city made of gold.

Account of Sir Walter Raleigh of his visit to the Pitch Lake at La Brea.

Etching on glass of the "Lion's Whelp", Raleigh's ship, with the Pitch Lake in the distance.


The exhibit case that contains the leaves of the tobacco plant. During the 17th century, tobacco was one of the several items used as a means of payment by the European in the Caribbean. This was because there was a shortage of actual currency. Other agricultural products were also used, sugar, for example was used as payment for goods and also for fines, when someone broke the law.

Detail of the Tobaco exhibit. Fragments of an early 19th century tobacco pipe with the missing elements recreated in clay, and a clay jar used to keep tobacco.

Tobacco smoker. It is said that Sir Walter Raleigh introduced tobacco to Europe, that he both "far-fetched" it and "dear-bought" it in 1595. 


Early 17th century Dutch map of Tobago, where a variation on the name (Tobago) approximates the word "tobacco". It was believed in this period that Tobago produced a very high quality tobacco.


"The cannibals that each other eat, the anthropomorgai, the men whose heads do grow beneath their shoulders..." - a fanciful 17th century description of the inhabitants of the New World.


Raleigh frees the Tribal Kings. In the ancient capital of Trinidad, San José de Oruña, Raleigh discovered and set free the five kings (caciques) of Trinidad held prisoner by the Spaniards. Their names were Wanawanare, Caroarori, Maquarima, Taroopana and Aterima. It should be pointed that the building in the picture did not actually exist, as there were no buildings built of masonry in Trinidad at that time. The artist who drew that picture lived in England and illustrated it how he knew a jail would be built there.

Sir Walter was the first of many famous visitors to the Pitch Lake.  Regarded as a wonder of the world it made its way onto the itineraries of many  visitors to Trinidad. Because of the several depressions on its surface, which are usually filled with water, the area gave the impression of a fresh water lake. This gave rise to this deposit of bitumen being called a lake.  

The Pitch Lake has had many famous visitors who recorded their experience, and this panel gives some of the accounts that they left behind.

The Cedula for Population of 1783, a Spanish law that invited people to come and develop Trinidad, also meant the introduction of enslaved Africans to the island on a much larger scale than previously. As a result a large number of sugar plantations were established at La Brea and environs adjacent to the Pitch Lake. African people who were not enslaved and Free mixed race people settled in the area as well contributing to the creation of an extensive agricultural economy in the pre-Emancipation period.

This timeline takes us from the 18th into the 19th century, showcasing how the economies and society of Trinidad developed during those fifty years between 1783 and 1834.
After the emancipation of the enslaved in 1838, the British colonial government sought to replace the labour force on the sugar plantations. From 1845 onwards, a large-scale Indian indentureship scheme filled that need. As the industrial revolution gained momentum in Europe, technological advancements led to the growth of the asphalt industry alongside the agricultural sector in the La Brea area.

Panel featuring the transition from the agricultural to the asphalt industry at La Brea in the mid-19th century.

Historical illistrations and photographs and postcards of La Brea from the 1830s to the present.

Map of La Brea and Guapo showing estate boundaries and some of the early oil fields of Trinidad in the area of the Pitch Lake .

Double-click on the images to enlarge and read them!

Part 2: Technological and Social Aspects of the Pitch Lake




Interior view of the Museum under construction.
The technological properties of pitch are of particular interest when told against the background of the social impact that the substance had. It is recorded that kerosine was invented by a man called Abraham Pineo Gessner in Halifax, Canada, with pitch from the Trinidad Pitch Lake! Lord Dundonald, an Englishman, was one of the early concessioners. Dundonald Street in Port of Spain is named for him. Conrad Frederick Stollmeyer was his local agent. Stollmeyer is remembered in history as the man who introduced the sale of coconuts from carts around the Queen's Park Savannah in Port of Spain in the 1860s.

Kerosine was first distilled from asphalt from the Pitch Lake at La Brea. This panel shows the people involved in this invention, along with a selection of images of historical kerosine lamps.

The Kerosine exhibit in the installation, showing how the street light images were suspended in front of the background with the kerosine lamps in individual frames, adding a three-dimensional effect to the exhibit.


When Phase 2 of the Museum at the Pitch Lake was built five years after Phase 1 a couple of changes were made to the exhibits in Phase 1 to streamline and harmonise the content better. Since the Museum is in one large room, this re-structuring of Phase 1 gave it a better flow.

For Phase 2, the Museum at La Brea also acquired a number of actual kerosine lamps, stoves and tools of various makes and shapes, which allowed us to restructure the exhibit as follows:

Installation of the exhibit with actual kerosine stoves and lamps.


Showcase with lamps, stoves, kerosine bottles, tools and lamp shades.

The finished exhibit.


A portable kerosine oven. It has a glass window in the front and was very popular for use in rural areas. In Trinidad, geologists would travel with this type of oven into the bush while conducting field research. But it was also popular with housewives. Yet another useful application of paraffin, kerosine or pitch oil as we know it in Trinidad and Tobago.


This exhibit outlines the influence of pitch as one of the petrochemical products of Trinidad and Tobago. With the advent of kerosene, street lighting on a very wide scale was introduced to the town of Port of Spain and to the outlying districts and villages, causing a change and upgrade of social life (see images below). Kerosine lighting also altered family life, in the sense that it was introduced in kerosine lamps and stoves, which caused a move away from coal- and wood-burning stoves, this brought an improved standard of living for all, especially the poor. The advent of kerosine altered the quality of life on all levels of the social spectrum and facilitated learning through reading at night. For street lighting kerosine replaced whale oil, which saved the lives of many of the great mammals (the Gulf of Paria was once called the Gulf of Whales). Pitch was also erroneously thought to be a preventative for cholera, which was held to be an air-borne disease. Pitch was burnt at street corners in the towns during the cholera epidemics of the 19th century.


Kerosine street lamp attached to a building at the corner of Broadway and Independence Square in the 1880s.

Kerosine street lamp at the corner of Chacon Street and Independence Square in the 1880s.

An early photograph of the kerosine street lamp at the foot of Frederick Street in the 1870s.

Kerosine street lamp in front of the Catholic Cathedral in in Port of Spain in the 1880s.

The light in the Lighthouse at Port of Spain was illuminated with kerosine.

A kerosine lantern used to advertise W.C. Ross, a pharmacy, on Frederick Street in Port of Spain .
The finished kerosine exhibit.

One of the more revolutionary new uses of pitch was, of course, the paving of roadways. Here is how it came about:

Earliest days of pitch used for roads

As the need for paved roadways increased throughout the world, especially after the invention of the motorcar, pitch from the Pitch Lake in La Brea began to be exported all over the world.


The Export of Pitch from Trinidad to the World



The science behind the Pitch Lake
After World War I, when thousands of Trinidadian and Tobagonian men came back from the theatres of war abroad, a new sense of pride and self made itself felt among the population. With the development of the oil sector subsequent to the growth in demand for petroleum-based products, the labour movement became more organised and more militant. Between 1917 and culminating with strikes and armed confrontation in 1937, the labour movement harnessed many stalwart personalities that set about changing conditions for workers not only in oil, but also in the sugar industry. This panel at La Brea commemorates and honours this development. It also honours the police officers, Major Power, Inspector Bradburn and Corporal Carl, "Charlie" King, who were killed in the line of duty on 19th June, 1937 during a strike in the oil belt.

Interior of the Museum with the Hummingbird exhibit on the western wall.


The installation showing the emergence of the labour movement in the oil belt in Trinidad.

Panel about the Labour Movement's history 1917 to 1937, featuring images of key personages and of the 1937 strike action.


Scientific equipment found at Vessigny. Over the centuries, a great many scientific studies were done on the Pitch Lake and its environs. Shown here are the remnants of the equipment of an unknown geologist who in the first years of the 20th century spent some time at La Brea. These objects were found in an abandoned planation house in the vicinity of the Vessigny estate. It contains the remains of a surveying and drawing kit made by Cooke, Troughton & Simms, a British instrument-making firm formed in 1922, and a Wallace & Tiernan altimeter.


A geology text  book of the 1920s. This book was once owned by P.E.T. O'Connor, the first Trinidadian graduate of the petroleum school at the University of Birmingham in the early 1920s. O'Connor worked at Antilles Petroleum Co. in Vessigny as the resident geologist, eventually becoming that company's General Manager, drilling for oil in the Brighton area. Upon Antilles' absorption into Texas Oil Company, he became a director of Texaco Trinidad, Inc.


Diagram of cross section of the Pitch Lake, which shows the diminishing level of the pitch between the years 1893 and 1925 due to mining activities.

Exhibit showing various items used by personnel in the early 20th century. At the top a Veritas portable stove. The photographs come the de Gannes/O'Connor photo album and show a glimpse of life of families in the oil industry in the 1930s. The soda syphon would have invigorated the rum cocktails of the geologist and planters in the La Brea area.


Silver-plated candle sticks and fine china of the period would be brought out to grace a table at Christmas, christenings or birthday parties.  Bottom right is a ceramic hot water bottle as a relief for gas pains, neuralgia, tired feet and attacks of gamp.

Surveyor's Map of the La Brea area.


This brings us to an end of the tour of the Pitch Lake Museum at La Brea! It was lovely having you and we hope you enjoyed to see and read about the Pitch Lake and its environs from pre-historic times to the early 20th century.

We now invite you to check out "The History of Oil", written by Gérard A. Besson and published by First Magazine, at the following links:







Click here to see the booklet about museums and exhibitions designed and built by Paria Publishing.

Thank you and come again! And in the meantime. don't forget to book your tour guide and visit the actual Pitch Lake itself, which truly is a Wonder of the World!


2 comments:

Unknown said...

Great Job. I recommend you add a drone tour of the lake facility to the virtual museum.

Isabella Steadman said...

Amazing history and stories. I never heard about some of these stories before. Thank you!