Sunday, February 18, 2018

La Brea, home of the pitch lake


'EVERYTHING CHANGE UP': Harold Bissessar contemplates the past as he sits on the jetty at Point D'or in La Brea last week.

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BUILT IN 1942: The tower which was built to protect the oil installations during World War II.

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Trinidad's geological history is replete with contributions from the seaside village of La Brea. It was there in the early years that crude oil and asphalt were found.

La Brea is Spanish for "pitch".

For centuries the pitch extracted from the lake found its way into several countries of the world, and it was at La Brea, oil explorer Walter Darwent met his death in 1868 when he contracted yellow fever while carrying out work on finding oil in commercial quantities.

The lake, with its raw supply of pitch, was partly responsible for putting La Brea on the map. Additionally, the presence of the lake and its evident relationship between crude oil and asphalt led to the area being considered as one with great promise for the discovery of oil.

As far back as 1595, English explorer Sir Walter Raleigh landed there and used the pitch from the lake to caulk his leaking ships. Afterwards he described it as "most excellent good ... It melteth not with the sun as the pitch of Norway".

Since the visit of Raleigh, seepages of oil from the pitch attracted considerable commercial and scientific interest concerning the discovery of oil. Even now there is still some controversy as to who actually discovered the lake.

The native Amerindians believed the lake sprung as a punishment by the Great Spirit after the killing of a hummingbird which was sacred to them.

Whatever the origin, the pitch from the lake has served to pave roadways and airports in various countries. In the area of tourism, this wonder of the world is visited yearly by thousands.

La Brea, which is home to the lake, is a ward of Trinidad. It consists of several villages extending from Rousillac to Vance River. Within that area exists several small villages, namely Point D'or, New lands, Vessigny, Brighton, Union and New and Old Jersey.

As an early producer of crude, the first oil refinery was built at Brighton in 1910 near Coon town, but a disastrous oil fire in 1924 destroyed that village and it was replaced with New and Old Jersey.

The occupants of Coon Town were moved to New Jersey, which is now the home of the La Brea Industrial Development Company (Labidco).

Labidco is currently involved in the production of heavy drilling equipment and offshore platforms and marine services.

Overlooking New Jersey is a 200-foot-tall concrete tower built in 1942 by the Royal Engineers of the British Army.

The tower provided security against German attack on oil installations at Brighton.

During the Second World War, oil was an essential fuel and every precaution had to be taken to ensure its availability for use by warships.

At the end of hostilities with Germany, the tower was used for a time as bachelors' quarters for Trinidad Lake Asphalt company employees.

Point D'or, which lies at the entrance to the village, is a prime residential area. In the development of the petroleum industry, it played an important part in shipping crude oil to various countries. In that area there were four ports, one was used for the steamer service from Cedros to Port of Spain.

Harold Bissessar, 74, recalled when the SS Naparima and SS St Patrick used a port at Queen Street (de Coffee) to discharge cargo and passengers. He also witnessed the first shipment of crude by Standard Oil Company which took place at Point D'or.

"They used to store the oil in a tank farm close to the gas station and pump it in pipes and then load it to the steamer," said Bissessar.

He lamented that, since the 1960s, "everything change up. The area is now used by fishermen".

Although La Brea is generally regarded as an area with a pitch lake and involved in oil production, in the early years of its development agriculture was the mainstay of the village.

With the discovery of oil in and around La Brea, agriculture became an industry of the past.

Arthur Forde, 80, a longstanding member of the La Brea community and one who has witnessed several social and structural changes that took place in the village dating back several decades, said, "At one time, there were 22 sugar factories in the village. The residents worked on several estates and planted cacao, coffee, rice, bananas and sugarcane. Everything changed when oil was discovered in the area," said Forde.

He said the only industry that survived the changes was the extraction of pitch from the lake. He described the operations at the lake as being very primitive and stressful.

"There were men employed by the management to dig the pitch with pick axes, then it was loaded on carts and placed into metal boxes suspending on cables that took the pitch to ships in the harbour."

Forde said, with the discovery of oil, La Brea became one of the more prosperous villages in Trinidad.

"Soon after the discovery of oil, people from various parts of Trinidad and even outside Trinidad arrived in the village to carry out business. At the top of the list were Chinese shopkeepers. "In the early years there were 40 Chinese shops scattered all over La Brea. There was even a village called Chiney Village on the outskirts of La Brea."

Brenda Alexander, a former resident of La Brea, now residing in Canada, stated, "While La Brea was similar to many rural seaside villages, the presence of rich mineral resources had a great impact on the lives of the residents." She said. "Most people enjoyed the same standard of living, owned their own homes or lived in houses owned by the asphalt or oil company."

She said, "In the old days, everyone bought goods on trust from the shop, borrowed money from money lenders or saved under the sou sou system. Young men and women dated, got married and never left La Brea."

La Brea junction used to be the centre of Carnival celebrations.

Forde said, "People from many parts of Trinidad came to La Brea to witness the ole mas and join in the celebrations. One of the early calypsoes was composed by calypsonian Gimblet of La Brea in which he besieged his family that, upon his death, his clothes should be buried with him, because he did not want his friend Arthur Glod to inherit them. "When ah dead, bury me clothes; I don't want Arthur to wear me clothes," he sang.

Within recent times, La Brea has experienced some hard times because of the reduction in oil activities, but the residents are hopeful that one day their fortunes would return and La Brea would become a model village in the southwestern peninsula.