The Winer Postcard Collection reveals a rich pictorial history of the La Brea Pitch Lake otherwise known as Brea Spanish Tar or the Pitch Pit. The images depict not only 19th century visitors to what some refer to as the eight (8th) wonder of the world, but the various aspects associated with the mining and exporting of the product.
The Pitch Lake is found in southwest Trinidad in the village of La Brea. A UNESCO, Trinidad and Tobago 2011 report indicates that, “the lake measures approximately one hundred (100) acres (41 hectares) and is estimated to be two hundred and fifty (250) feet (76 metres) deep in the centre. It holds about ten million (10,000,000) tons of pitch. The asphalt is an emulsion of water, gas, bitumen and mineral matter, the latter consisting largely of fine silica sand and a lesser amount of impalpably fine clay.” This particular pitch lake has also been deemed the largest commercial deposit of natural asphalt in the world.
Sir Waiter Raleigh in the year 1595 was the first European explorer to discover the pitch lake having discovered it while exploring the island. Raleigh utilized asphalt from the Lake to caulk his battered ship. Since then, the La Brea Pitch Lake has fascinated explorers, scientists, and common folk. A significant number of research investigations have been commissioned into the use and chemical composition of this material.
In 1888 the Legislative Council gave a contract to work the "lake" and from this time began the large-scale export of pitch. In 1978, Lake Asphalt of Trinidad and Tobago (1978) Limited (LATT), was incorporated. Its objective was to extract and process asphalt from the Lake. LATT now produces a wide range of products with asphalt from the Lake being the base ingredient. Among these are an anti-corrosive black paint, seam sealant, underbody coating for automobiles, a pipe and metal guard and bitumen emulsion. It is presently exported to over thirty countries throughout the world. It is estimated that in the last century over twelve million tons of Lake Asphalt has been extracted with approximately 500 years of reserves in existence given the current percentage rate of usage (UNESCO, 2011).
It has been estimated that approximately 20,000 domestic and international tourists visit the La Brea Pitch Lake annually (UNESCO, 2011). People occasionally swim in the waters of the pitch lake which some say is therapeutic because of the sulphur content.
The asphalt lake has long been of significance to the First People of Trinidad and Tobago, as such two (2) main legends have been passed down to explain the formation of the lake. The first revolves around CALLIFARIA, the daughter of a tribal chief, and the intervention of PIMLONTAS, the winged Arawak god. The more well known legend involves the CHAIMA INDIANS. The belief in this case surrounds the Chaima’s victory over a rival tribe. They got carried away during the victory celebration, cooking and eating the sacred hummingbirds which were believed to hold the spirits of their ancestors. As punishment, their winged god opened up the earth and conjured the lake of pitch to swallow the entire village. Fossilized pottery belonging to the First Peoples, along with remains of prehistoric animals has been found in the pitch lake.
A number of conflicting scientific theories have been put forward by experts over the past century with respect to the origin of this unique deposit. An early theory proposes that a series of naturally occurring events associated with a mud volcano led to the lake’s formation. Another scientific theory is associated with the separation of the island of Trinidad from the South American mainland of Venezuela.
Did you Know?
Has anyone ever told you that someone they knew ‘passed them straight like a Brighton bucket,’ meaning passed them by without acknowledgement? The probability is that you have not heard this statement unless you are from the southwest of Trinidad or spent time with persons from this region. Outside the southwest of Trinidad, the colloquial phrase is ‘pass me like a full bus’.This southwest parlance is derived from the way in which the asphalt was moved from the processing plant to the ships waiting to be loaded at the Brighton, La Brea dock.
The asphalt was transported via overhead cables in large metal buckets that went straight from the processing plant to the ships waiting out at sea for the precious resource. To the observer these buckets always went forward not swaying to the left or right.
To discover more on Trinidad and Tobago’s rich history, follow the Heritage Library Division on Facebook @NALISHLDTT or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Systems Librarian, Ms. Donna Hall Comissiong.
Images courtesy: The Heritage Library Division’s Winer Postcard Collection
The History Of The Pitch Lake And The Village Of La Brea. Lake Asphalt of Trinidad and Tobago (1978) Limited: Brighton La Brea, Trinidad. 2020. https://trinidadlakeasphalt.com/history/
Trinidad and Tobago National Commission for UNESCO. La Brea Pitch Lake. UNESCO, World Heritage Centre. August 2011. https://whc.unesco.org/en/tentativelists/5645/
Trinidad Lake Asphalt. Lake Asphalt of Trinidad and Tobago (1978) Limited: Brighton La Brea, Trinidad. https://trinidadlakeasphalt.com/bdu/pdfs/history_page.pdf