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'The' Pitch Lake

hand holding well preserved leaves by Pitch Lake

Organics - even leaves - preserve exceptionally well in Pitch Lake.

A geological wonder

rough, bubbled pitch lake surface

The ‘elephant skin’ surface of the lake.

Pitch Lake is one of the world’s most unusual settings – a solid ‘lake’ that you can walk on, roughly 100 acres in size, 250 feet deep, and containing roughly 10 million tons of asphalt, which continues to churn below its roughly textured ‘elephant skin’ surface. To Trinis, the lake is not so much a location or place on a map, but an entity - it is always referred to as 'The Pitch Lake', with the location as La Brea.

Many thousands of years ago, a movement along one of the natural fault lines at the earth’s surface reached deep enough to tap a large oil and gas reservoir, channelling the material to the surface and creating the lake. This source ensures a continued – though not inexhaustable – replenishing of the asphalt, which is in slow but constant movement below the thick surface ‘skin’.

This movement would go unnoticed were it not for the occasional appearance of large tree trunks – which had fallen into the lake from the surrounding banks – rising from the centre of the lake and then slowly moving to the edges before disappearing again below the surface, pulled down by the underground ‘current’. Areas excavated during the process of harvesting pitch are replenished within a matter of hours, again due to the constant movement of the asphalt. 

A brief history of asphalt mining

"...there is that abundance of stone pitch, that all the ships of the world may be therewith loden from thence... [it is] most excellent good, and melteth not with the sunne as the pitch of Norway, and therefore for ships trading the South parts very profitable"
Sir Walter Raleigh, 1595

The merits of the asphalt at Pitch Lake were known to the indigenous inhabitants for millennia prior to Sir Robert Dudley and later Sir Walter Raleigh's ‘discovery’ of the resource: archaeological sites around the lake date back to at least ca. BC 500, and the wood artefacts recovered from the lake itself suggest an even deeper history.

stamp showing men examining lake surface

Trinidad and Tobago stamp featuring the ‘Discovery of Lake Asphalt by Raleigh, 1595’.

Raleigh’s observations however – calling the material ‘most excellent good’ for ship caulking - came at a time when many European countries were expanding their powers in the Caribbean, and such a resource was indeed valuable to ships making the long, arduous voyage from Europe to the Caribbean. The Spanish, who laid claim to Trinidad during Columbus’ 1498 voyage, and finally established a settlement in 1592 (previous attempts were abandoned for various reasons), continued to exploit the pitch for their own ships and for trade with foreign vessels until the British took control of the island in 1797.

Although various enterprises were initiated by the British in the early 1800s to more intensively exploit the resource, commercial asphalt harvesting did not start until after 1850, largely for road-surfacing material. By the 1890s more than 175,000 tons of pitch had been harvested, and by the 1920s – with the booming motor industry’s need for paved roads – this rose to 265,000 tons annually. Export to Europe, particularly after the first World War, was a major impetus, with many roads in France, England, and eventually Germany, Egypt and Japan paved with Trinidad asphalt.

These huge quantities were all harvested by hand until the 1950s, when mechanical ditchers and eventually tractors were introduced. The enterprise now is held by the state-owned company Lake Asphalt of Trinidad and Tobago (1978) Ltd, which uses completely modern technologies to mine, refine and manufacture asphalt related products. With such sustained dredging of the lake over the last century and a half, it is no surprise that artefacts have been recovered.  

men digging and carrying baskets on their heads

An early 20th century postcard showing men in the process of digging pitch with picks. The heavy fragments would be carried to waiting steel cars before being taken to the refining station.