From sugar estate to oil refinery

Old Trainstation
Old Trainstation

FOR decades, taxpayers have been concerned about the goings-on at State-owned Petrotrin, the oil company with, some say, too many employees and too little profit.

The new Government intends tackling corruption and mismanagement at the company that has spawned what is arguably the country’s most powerful labour union, the Oilfields Workers’ Trade Union.

What is not widely known, however, is that the company’s Pointe-a-Pierre refinery helped win a World War.

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese bombed the US base at Pearl Harbour.

The day after the bombing, US Secretary of the Interior, Harold L Ickes, summoned top oil executives to his office in Washington to form the Petroleum Wartime Industry Council, which effectively placed the entire industry in the service of the US government.

Trinidad and Tobago was among countries that took part in the discussion because of its oil reserves and refinery, the historians recorded.

George Beeby Thompson was appointed officer in charge of Trinidad’s operations, and the Department of Mines was mandated to organise the production of fuel for World War II. The refinery at Pointe-a-Pierre was then placed under military surveillance by both local and foreign security officials.

The action by the US government gave the village international recognition because of its involvement in a product needed to win the war.

Refining of crude oil had started as early as 1914 by Trinidad Leaseholds Ltd (TLL), and by 1940, it was producing fuel for the Hurricane and Spitfire aircraft engaged in the Battle of Britain.

Wartime demands for refined petroleum products had to be increased, and a new refinery at Poine-a-Pierre was built in 1940. For security reasons the project was named 1234 and was started and completed in 14 months. That refinery is currently undergoing upgrade at considerable cost.

Pointe-a-Pierre, though, is not only about refining oil. There were other important historical events that shaped the history of the village.

These included a riot by African slaves in 1832 which destroyed Plein Palais Estate, the site of the present refinery; and the arrival in 1687 of three Capuchin monks who gained entry into Savana Grande by using the Guaracara River, now a polluted river.

According to the history books, the village derived its name from large quantities of stones found by the Spaniards while navigating the coastline. They named the village “Punta de Piedras”, meaning “Point of Stones”, and when French planters were given lands in the area, as a result of the 1783 Cedula of Population, they translated the Spanish to “Pointe-a-Pierre”.

Some of the stones reclaimed from the coast are stacked at the back of Petrotrin’s administrative offices at Pointe-a-Pierre.

Steel Pan
Oil yes, but sugarcane was the first crop planted on the estates.

By 1817, French planters had developed Plaisance, Concorde, Bon Accord, La Carriere and Plein Palais estates as flourishing sugar estates. When the price of sugar declined, these estates went under and were later acquired by TLL for construction of an oil refinery.

Plein Palais (solid roof), where the refinery is located, was the scene of a bloody riot in 1832.

JD Elder, anthropologist and historian, recalled, “The slaves on the estate had heard that they would be freed and had approached the estate owners for a date on which this would happen. But the owners failed to respond to the slaves’ request. The slaves then set fire to the estate, but by the time the militia arrived they had already fled to nearby Gasparillo and Caratal.”

Every year, on Emancipation Day, members of the Southern Emancipation Committee hold a memorial at the Pointe-a-Pierre roundabout to commemorate the death of slaves who perished in the fire.

At Plaisance, an estate to the north of the refinery, there is a military bunker overlooking Trinidad’s first industrial estate. It was inside that concrete bunker that Captain Hartman committed suicide on learning that he was to be sent back to England and demoted.

The estate also had hot springs which supplied water to San Fernando during the early 19th century. The springs were on lands owned by the Tennant family.

They went out of use in 1899 when San Fernando Waterworks was opened by Governor Sir Hubert Jerningham.

Guaracara River has its own history dating back to the occupation of the Amerindians. It was used as the point of entry for three Capuchin missionaries who landed in 1687 to hold talks with the native Amerindians, with a view to christianising them.

According to CR Ottley: “Unaware of the impending enslavement, the natives welcomed the fathers and helped them to establish the first mission, south of Savonetta.”

That mission formed the nucleus of Catholicism in San Fernando.

Most of the physical history of early Pointe-a-Pierre has been dismantled to give way to expansion of the refinery.

The overhead bridge, on which the train traversed from 1885 until the system was closed in 1965, was dismantled earlier this year due to concerns about its integrity.

All that remains of the railway system is the passenger ticketing station and the residence of the manager of operations.

“Both buildings are due to be converted into an energy museum due to be opened in March 2011,” said Victor Young On, president of the Petroleum Historical Society.

The Wild Fowl Trust within the confines of Petrotrin’s property has made a significant contribution to tourism.

Founded in 1966 by Richard Dean and John Cambridge, the trust, comprising two lakes and 25 hectares of land, is dedicated to the preservation of wetlands and wild fowls.

Guaracara Park continues to provide sporting and recreational opportunities to southerners and has been host to the annual Southern Games.

By Louis B Homer South Bureau. Story Created: Dec 19, 2010 at 10:47 PM ECT. Story Updated: Dec 19, 2010 at 10:47 PM ECT