Tour Of The Caribbean – The Pitch Lake

THERE are some things the traveller finds it hard to avoid. Among them is the Pitch Lake at Trinidad. This spot has been described as one of the ” wonders of the world ” ; it was visited by Sir Walter Raleigh, who caulked his ships from its strange depths, while it is supposed to realise some features of those infernal regions of which so much has been written in proportion to what is known. It happens, therefore, that any traveller who, having landed at Trinidad, fails to see the Pitch Lake, must be prepared to be for ever assured that he has missed the one thing worth seeing in the New World.

Froude is among the few who have boldly defied the temptation to look upon this spot. He has declared in writing, and with evident pride, that he ” resisted all exhortations to visit it.”

The lake is situated near La Brea, a poor village on the west coast of Trinidad, some thirty-six miles from Port of Spain. The journey thither is, under ordinary conditions, tedious, being effected partly by train, partly by steamer and partly on foot. My visit to the lake was rendered both agreeable and interesting through the kindness of Mr. Bartlett, the manager of the company which is at present in possession of the wondrous pool.

Starting in a launch from Port of Spain we landed at Brighton, where is a pier from which the asphalt is shipped. The land thereabouts is low and commonplace, the beach a narrow line of sand, the bay alive with pelicans. There are curious things on the shore, in the form of boulders of pitch which have oozed up through the sand from the mysterious abyss, as if they were the ” casts ” of some awful worm. They have been polished by the sea into shining globules of jet, some of which are fringed with green weed —the strangest rocks to be seen upon any coast.

One associates asphalt with city streets and tramways, so it is strange to see lumps of it among the common objects of the seashore, and providing a resting-place for pelicans. Everything about this quaint seaport has some community with pitch. The piles of the pier are caked with pitch, the pavements are of pitch, as is the solitary highway, the black child sitting on a pitch boulder is nursing a doll made of pitch.

The lake is about a mile from the shore on slightly raised ground, surrounded by scanty jungle and a number of Moriche palms. The first impression of the visitor when he looks down upon the famous pool must be a little influenced by the accounts he may have read of it. So many authors insist upon comparing the place with the Hades of the ancients. Even Kingsley speaks of it as ” an inferno,” as a ” Stygian pool,” as ” the fountain of Styx,” and ” thinks it well for the human mind that the pitch lake was still unknown when Dante wrote his hideous poem.” There are writers who tell vaguely of smoke and flames, as well as of sulphurous smells. It is little to be doubted that the name of the place is in some measure answerable for these impressions. It recalls the lake “which burneth with fire and brimstone” on the one hand, while boiling pitch has always held a prominent place in the diabolical menage. If the locality had been called “the asphalt flat” it is probable that none of these fancies would have fluttered into the minds of men. There is nothing Dantesque about asphalt ; indeed, the spot, if less unfortunately named, would no more have suggested the inferno than would a lake of Portland cement.

The visitor to La Brea will see neither flames nor smoke, nor anything boiling, nor will he be helped in other ways to realise the awfulness of the stream by Charon’s ferry. The place is by no means terrible nor awe-inspiring. It is as bare of the poetic afflatus as is a coal-merchant’s yard. The poet of Florence might have gazed upon it unmoved, although Kingsley believes that it would have suggested to him ” the torments of lost beings sinking slowly in the black Bolge beneath the baking rays of the tropic sun.”

As a matter of fact, people can only sink in the lake with difficulty and with infinite patience. A man who attempted suicide by this process would die of starvation and boredom before he had sunk much above his knees, and to get even so far he would have to be pertinacious.

When I saw the lake there was but a solitary man upon it, near about its centre. He was a coolie squatting on the pitch on his hams, washing clothes in one of the many little puddles on the lake’s surface.

If a Londoner would realise the Pitch Lake, he must imagine the pond in St. James’s Park emptied of water, its bottom filled with asphalt, pools left in places, and some tropical vegetation disposed about the margin of the depression. Such a landscape would only inspire in the susceptible conceptions of the scenery of Hell.

The Pitch Lake, when I first caught sight of it, had exactly the appearance of the ultimate creek of an estuary at low tide. I saw a wide flat of a hundred acres, wherein were runnels of water which may have been left by the ebb, large stretches of what appeared to be mud dried by the sun, and a few small islands covered with brush. The mud was pitch, the water was rainwater, the islands were genuine.

When the brink of the lake was reached there was no suggestion of the bank of that river where shuddering souls must wait for a crossing. It looked more like the edge of a pond near a great city which had been frozen over, but the ice of which had been dulled by the dirt from many boots. I stepped from the grass on to this surface with just as much caution as one would employ in placing a foot on suspicious ice. It might have been slippery but it was not. In a few moments, after jumping across some waterways, I was in the middle of the lake walking on the asphalt of commerce valued at so much per ton.

The sensation that walking upon this substance gave was no other than that of treading upon the flank of some immense beast, some Titanic mammoth lying prostrate in a swamp. The surface was black, it was dry and minutely wrinkled like an elephant’s skin, it was blood-warm, it was soft and yielded to the tread precisely as one would suppose that an acre of solid flesh would yield. The general impression was heightened by certain surface creases where the hide seemed to be turned in as it is in the folds behind an elephant’s ears. These skin furrows were filled with water as if the collapsed animal were perspiring.

The heat of the air was great, the light was almost blinding, while the shimmer upon the baked surface, added to the swaying of one’s feet in soft places, gave rise to the idea that the mighty beast was still breathing, and that its many-acred flank actually moved.

I am told that the full extent of the pitch-bearing area is 110 acres, and that its exact depth is unknown. The asphalt is not bailed out as the readers of some guide-books might suppose, nor is it dug up. It is hooked out in junks with a pick, each piece separating from the mass with a dry bright fracture like that of a blue flint. The lump so delved from the ” Stygian pool ” is lifted up with the hands and thrown ignominiously into a truck. These trucks run on rails and sleepers across the lake. The rails and sleepers of the ” permanent way ” sink slowly into the solid pitch, so that once in every three days they have both to be raised up and readjusted on the surface.

On each side of the trackway there will be a trough or trench produced by the labours of the men with the picks. This trough rapidly fills again level and solid, is again dug out only to close in once more. It thus comes about that although the asphalt is being removed at the rate of 100,000 tons a year, the lines of rail need never to be altered in direction.

The lake, like the Burning Bush, is not consumed ; the furrow remains ever unfinished ; the task is as hopeless as the ploughing of sand, and is one that might well have wearied even Sisyphus, the roller of the ever-slipping stone. Day by day, month by month, year by year, the lake presents the same strange picture of men toiling at a trench which as they pass along only closes up behind them.

As they leave their work at sundown they look back at a gully cut across the black morass, but when they come to the brim of the lake at dawn they find that all is level again, and that the ditch, the labour of a day, has vanished.

It is said that many women, when inquiring as to the origin of a product, will be satisfied with the answer that it is ” made by machinery ” ; so there are many people who are ready to believe that any terrestrial phenomenon is to be explained by ” volcanic action.” To ” volcanic action ” the formation of the Pitch Lake has been ascribed, but, unhappily for this conclusion, there is no trace of volcanic energy in the Island of Trinidad.

The origin of the asphalt is identical with that of mineral oil. Indeed, pitch would appear to be no other than oil which, owing to a peculiar geological disposition, has become inspissated in a convenient basin or evaporating dish.

There are subtle movements in this unrippled pool ; the islands wander aimlessly from shore to shore like undecided ghosts ; the trunk of a tree will rise out of the phlegmatic lake and after pointing for a while skywards, as if it were a warning finger, will withdraw into the black depths again. These movements, and the curiously in turned creases on the lake’s surface are explained by convection currents and not by subterranean influences. To the same commonplace cause is ascribed the filling of that heartless trench which no spade can empty.