Chile – Humberstone and Santa Laura Ghost Towns in Atacama Desert

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View of Humberstone ghost town in Chile's Atacama Desert (photo credit: Coen Wubbels)

The discovery of nitrate fertilizer in the 19th century brought economic wealth to Chile. The Atacama Desert numbered 170 nitrate mining towns, yearly producing three million tons of saltpetre. However, after synthetic fertilizer had been invented, Chile’s nitrate industry collapsed. All that remain are ghost towns, among which Humberstone and Santa Laura, near Iquique. Both have become UNESCO World Heritage Sites and are impressive testimonies to the bygone era of the nitrate boom.

The Foundation of Santa Laura and Humberstone Nitrate Mines

In 1872 the Santa Laura Nitrate Mine was opened up by Guillermo Wendel & Co, while the nearby Humberstone Nitrate Mine, originally called La Palma, was constructed by the Peruvian Nitrate Company. The mines had their top production from 1894 to 1920 but, like so many others, became paralysed by the Big Depression of the thirties.

The companies provided housing, food, health care and household goods for the workers. The ghost town of Humberstone still shows how rows of small houses were constructed in a grid pattern, and the restored church and theatre can still be visited. Sports were possible on the tennis and basketball courts, or in the swimming pool – the latter constructed from the cast iron of a ship wrecked in the port of Iquique.

Life in the Mining Towns of the Atacama Desert

Life in the nitrate mines was hard and at times demanded sacrifices – as ancient graveyards in the desert testify. Seeing and feeling the harsh sun of the Atacama Desert, one of the driest deserts in the world, makes one realize that life must have been exhausting for the diggers of the chalice – the rough material dug in the desert from which nitrate was extracted, or for any other worker for that matter. Tamarugal Forests needed to be cut to supply the mines with fuel for the ovens, other miners worked the ovens and took care of transportation.

Initially workers were paid in fichas, tokens made of rubber, aluminium, brass or cardboard, which took the place of cash and were worthless elsewhere. Goods could be purchased only in the stores or pulperias [bars that also served as shops] in the nitrate towns they lived in. It took many strikes and protests before this system was finally abolished, in 1924.

Santa Maria School of Iquique’s Massacre

The rudimentary lifestyle of the majority of the workers led to a surge of guilds and subsequently of political parties. According to the brochure Region of Tarapacá nitrate mines, published by Sernatur Iquique, the pampinos [men of the desert] are seen as the founders of South America’s leftist political parties. The quest for better working conditions led to strikes and protests, of which the Santa Maria School of Iquique’s Massacre in 1907 is probably the best known.

On December 10, 1907 the Movimento Obrero Chileno gathered downtown Iquique in front of the Santa María School. They demanded a raise in salary and better working conditions. Within days the group grew from 15,000 to 23,000 strikers, which no longer only affected production in the mines but the port as well. The government ordered the strikers to leave the town by December 21 and when this was ignored General Roberto Silva Renard opened fire on the protesting workers. Statistics differ, but according to witnesses there must have been at least 200 deaths and 200 to 400 wounded, others speak of thousands of wounded.

Protests such as those in Iquique were followed by the workers’ press and in 1910 led to the circulation of the El Despertar de los Trabajadores [“Worker’s Awakening”] and slowly conditions for the workers improved.

Nitrate Mines as Historical Monuments and World Heritage Sites

After many years of prosperity both Santa Laura and Humberstone had to close their doors in 1960. Both sites were declared Historic Monuments in 1971, turned into museums in 1997 and declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2005. Humberstone’s history is yearly commemorated during the Saltpetre Week in November.