9 July, 2004
Fighting mud at D'leau Gommier
For the past month the Public Works Department and engineers of the Ministry of Communication and Works have been battling away on a section of road at D'Leau Gommier at the centre of the Transinsular Road across the island. For most of this time the road has been closed to traffic and north eastern commuters and airport passengers have had to travel around by way of the Carib Territory or along the West Coast. The road is now open once more but the work is not yet over. It must be costing us some many hundreds of thousands of dollars. And all of this because of some road engineer’s mistake made almost fifty years ago. It’s the kind of story that makes people shrug their shoulders and say "Typical Dominica!".

For years there had been the dream of a road across the island from Roseau to the productive north east. When the French were in control of Dominica they had constructed a tortuous track they called the Grand Chemin, from Layou to Pagua by way of Tarreau Ridge. It can be seen on the old French map of Dominica dated 1778. In the late 19th century the owner of Melville Hall, Thomas Davies, argued for a railway line instead of a road. Then in 1902 the British Administrator, Hesketh Bell, made the first breach to the centre of the island by starting work at Canefield instead of Layou, as was favoured by the original plan. But his Imperial Road petered out at Belles, or Bassinville, as it was then known, in 1906. It took almost another forty years for things to get started again.


In 1944, Dominica got a Colonial Development and Welfare (CD&W) grant of £54,360 (pounds sterling) to at last open the first motorable road across the island. Work began at Penrice with the intention of getting to Deux Branches and joining with the Concorde Valley road by 1947. Without bulldozers or modern earth moving equipment, hundreds of men from all over the island, armed only with shovels, pickaxes, forks and wheelbarrows began their work. They camped in big longhouses on the site where the Belles Government School now stands and they called the place "Norway" because they found it so cold to work there. From the time they started they were plagued with landslides. After months of cutting, work was repeatedly swept away.

By early 1947 the road cutting had only reached the hill at D’Leau Gommier and all of the money had disappeared. In three years of work the road had only progressed about a mile and a half. The project closed down and it was not resurrected for almost a decade. People spoke of "bobol" and they sang about it in two famous "chantè mas" during the masquerade of 1947: "Sa ki twavai Norway!" and "Si ou té Norway sa ou téké fè?"


The section of the road at D’leau Gommier passes through one of the most complex geological areas of the island. It stands at the top of a watershed between two of our largest rivers, the Layou and the Pagua. It is at a point where the volcanic ash and debris of the main southern and northern volcanoes meet. It is because of this that it is the lowest pass in this area through the backbone of mountains. It is why the Kalinago/Caribs, the French, the British and ourselves have all chosen this way to pass across the island for over a thousand years.

The latest geological map of Dominica (Robol and Smith 2003) shows that it lies along a geological boundary associated with the Morne Pierre Louis volcanic dome. It is at the end of a possible fault running up the length of the Layou Valley. It lies in the path of four different types of block and ash flows including ignimbrite and pyroclastic deposits lying one above the other. These ash flows are light and are not compacted. Therefore they are easily saturated with water. Topping this off are the yellow and white Kaolin clays that are plastic and unstable. It is an area with one of the highest rainfall figures on the island. It is not called D’Leau Gommier for nothing. Take the forest way and cut through all of this and you are looking for trouble.


So this takes us to the problem that our engineers are now dealing with today. The engineer on the 1944 – 1947 project was a young Welshman, Cliff Jones. From Belles to Deux Branches the road survey followed the alignment of the old French "Grand Chemin" of the 1770s as the only way to cross the divide. Jones said he was "fed up with all these corners" and he surveyed and drew up a plan that made a straight line up the ridge from Riviere D’or, at the end of Belles, to join the old French track on the divide between the heights of the Layou Valley and the Pagua Valley. The line was laid and the trees were cut. It was nicknamed "Jones’s straight mile" by those who saw it. And that was when the money ran out.

Jones had argued that because of the soft soil and three ravines along the slope to the north, he felt that it was better to go straight up the ridge. He saw big problems of slippage if the road was cut at the lower elevation. But when work on the road started again in 1955, Jones had long since left the island and other engineers brushed his concerns away. They decided to turn north at a point half way up the hill and cut across the ravines that Jones had warned about.

They filled the ravines with the soft mud of the area. But the new modern heavy equipment, which had just arrived in Dominica for the project, sank in the mud. To make movement easier tree trunks were put across to aid their path. Over mud and tree trunks was laid foundation rocks and macadam chippings. The road was cut through in 1956 and finishing work continued in the years that followed. But the ground water in the ravines continued to seep and the road in that area continued to slide for the next 49 years until today.

Like dentists digging out a decayed tooth, our valiant team from Communication and Works has been rooting out the old filling and are putting in culverts and drains and packing the gap with aggregate. I wish our present day engineers well and I admire their efforts, but I fear that Jones was right and that the geology is against you. Next time you get some good money to spend, like when the French money comes for the Melville Hall to Pont Casse Road, go back to Jones’ plan of 1947 and take the road higher above the ground water. This story is just one of many. A whole book could be written of the errors of past road plans in Dominica that we still have to live with today. But that is for another time.


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