A photograph shows the ponds before the collapse, and what it is today.
Faded glory of Usine Ste Madeleine
AT age 81, Bissun Seeballack must have thought he was immortal.
Each morning, he walked along Manahambre Road pushing his 32-year-old British-built Raleigh bicycle. Through six villages, he took his machine.
And from out of a wooden box strapped to the frame behind the seat, he sold whatever fruit or vegetable might be in season and growing in his backyard.
It was a long time since he rode that bicycle. Five years ago, he was struck and run over by a car and has since been unable to get on the seat and pedal off. Seeballack did not care and family advice was ignored.
This bicycle and its earlier versions have transported him through his entire adult life. Back then, bicycle was king.
Seeballack also decided to ignore the fact that in those 60-odd years, the traffic flow along his road—Manahambre—which links Princes Town to San Fernando, picked up considerably.
His route, once a track of gravel on dirt, was now dual-lane asphalt used by mostly angry people trying to get to wherever they were going, in a hurry.
Now there were hundreds of vehicles blowing past Seeballack, thoroughly unimpressed by the advance of time, and the technology it brought.
Where he once rode between walls of sugar cane, there is now CEPEP-controlled bush.
But he still had to pass the rusting hulk of the Usine Ste Madeleine factory where he worked as a plumber.
It was one of the few things that remained constant for Seeballack over these years.
This, along with the samaan trees and the two reservoirs roadside on Manahambre—man-made ponds separated by a causeway along which the tasker trucks once travelled from field to factory, after the locomotives stopped pulling the cane trailers.
It’s the ponds Seeballack wanted to talk about. There were three at the time when the State shut down the sugar industry ten years ago.
The reservoirs supplied the water for the cooling towers and machines at the factory. The one known as Petite Morne pond is the backdrop to Usine Ste Madeleine Sport Club and Golf Course.
And because only a concrete embankment separated this pond from the road, it was also the preferred one for suicides, and the site of drownings.
The reservoirs are so old that no one can give an accurate date when they were constructed.
However, historian and researcher Angelo Bissessarsingh said that the Usine Ste Madeleine factory was the biggest in the British empire when it opened in 1870, and the first experiment in Trinidad in the use of a central usine (French for factory or plant), when every small estate had one.
So old that, in time, the ponds became a haven for wildfowl and fish, and a habitat for small mammals, amphibians and reptiles, a self-sustaining eco-system surrounded by sugar cane then, and housing developments now.
It had, just as importantly, became a place of recreation for families with few other options in and around Princes Town.
All of that changed on Carnival Monday 2009, when the St Charles pond emptied in a sudden torrent when the causeway broke. The cause of the collapse was, in part, because scrap metal dealers had removed the railway steel meant to strengthen the concrete spillway.
What was a two-kilometre circumference body of guabine and tilapia-filled water became a tangle of waterlogged bush.
The roads leading to the pond are now garbage-strewn and potholed crime hotspots and the area is no longer used by Hindu priests to perform the ten-day ritual done after the death of a loved one, known as the bandara or “shaving”.
Seeballack has been witness to the destruction and it makes him sad.
He wanted to know why no one had fixed the breach. The same way he had put a “spirit lash” on the driver of the car that struck him, he wanted to deal with the people who failed to see the importance of his ponds.
When the Express spoke with Seeballack earlier this year, he was resting up, spending most of his time in the hammock, bicycle propped nearby, waiting to heal from a recent illness.
He passed away in March.
- The Usine Ste Madeleine sugar factory made sugar crystals, unlike the small operations, which produced muscovado, sugar which is like hard candy.
There are three ponds around the factory, one north of the plant which contained spring-fed water for cooling the steam-driven machinery, one located near the sports club which watered livestock and also supplied cooling water, and a nasty lees, or settling pond, which is where the effluent from the refining process ended.
As early as 1878 someone wrote to the San Fernando Gazette complaining about the terrible stink which overflowed into Cipero River, an odour no one who travelled through or lived in the area can ever forget.