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Trinidad’s first oilwell

Published: 
Sunday, June 3, 2012
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Walter Darwent’s oil well at Aripero, as seen in 1867, showing the simple wooden derrick, stacks of drill-pipe and the shed over the steam engine used to power the operations.

A few weeks ago, the country lost one of its greatest heritage assets, the forlorn little stump of drill-pipe, which marked the genesis of this country’s energy sector. In 1860, English geologists, Messrs Wall and Sawkins, did an extensive geological survey of the island, which revealed significant deposits of mineral coal, limestone and other geological oddities.

 

When analysing the Pitch Lake at La Brea, they drew an immediate connection between the occurrence of asphalt and the existence of crude oil. The possible existence of petroleum in the area attracted the attention of Capt Walter P Darwent, who at the time was resident in Port-of-Spain with his family.

 

Darwent, a veteran of the Apache Wars in the USA, was convinced that the area around the Pitch Lake held commercially-viable quantities of black gold. He travelled to New York in 1864 and, through much perseverance, attracted venture capital to incorporate the Paria Petroleum Company in 1865. After much trauma, the company was formed and equipment acquired.

 

This was done for an additional $6,300 in local shares, purchased by some of the most powerful businessmen in the island. The firm had no board of directors, being managed by the shareholders themselves and the president, Capt Darwent. He was sure of the viability of the enterprise, and was not daunted by the detractors who scoffed at the venture.

 

Darwent was so certain that the project would yield great returns that he purchased thousands of wooden casks to hold the oil. These were stacked in an empty lot near San Fernando Hill. The energetic man moved his equipment by steamer to La Brea. Prospecting around the area, he discovered seepages of oil on Aripero Estate, a defunct sugar plantation.

 

Darwent erected a steam engine and a crude wooden rig. He struck a rich oil sand at only 200 feet, but the pressure of gas was so low he could not get the oil to the surface. He tried using dippers attached to a cable but this was abortive, since the clayey soil often collapsed, filling the bore.

 

The failure to produce oil in marketable amounts caused the Paria Petroleum Company to collapse. Darwent himself was disheartened. He contracted yellow fever and died at La Brea in 1868, just one year after striking oil. According to his great-granddaughter Jennifer Franco, Darwent’s widow put her husband’s corpse in a rowboat and she and a boatman sculled all night towards San Fernando where was given a decent burial.

 

The derrick and equipment were abandoned and returned to the bush. A small and valiant team of community conservationists fought for decades to have the site preserved, even marking it with a signboard at their own expense. Pleas to the Tourism Development Company, Petrotrin and the National Heritage Trust to save this historic site fell on deaf ears.

 

In 2012, the wellhead of Walter Darwent’s 1867 find, our first oilwell, was bulldozed to make way for construction development.

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