The Abandoned Humberstone And Santa Laura Saltpeter Works

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Forty-eight kilometers east of the city of Iquique in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, lies the remains of two large saltpeter works. Between the late 19th century and early 20th century, thousands of workers drawn from Chile, Peru and Bolivia lived and worked in the hostile environment of one of the driest deserts on Earth extracting and processing sodium nitrate, also known as saltpeter, which was used to produce fertilizers and, historically, gunpowder.

These deposits were exploited by Bolivia, Chile and Peru since the 1840s. A struggle between these countries to control the nitrate-rich region eventually led to the War of the Pacific (1879–1883), also known as the Saltpeter War, in which Chile defeated Peru and Bolivia, and gained a significant amount of land from both countries. These acquisition enabled Chile to practically monopolize the production of natural nitrate. By the 1890s Chile was supplying almost 80% of the nitrogen used in the world.


Photo credit: Carlos Varela/Flickr

At that time more than 200 saltpeter works were in operation in the Atacama Desert, all of which were interconnected by a specially built modern railway system. A dozen or so company towns such as Chacabuco, Maria Elena, Pedro de Valdivia, Puelma and Aguas Santas sprang up, where the workers lived and “forged a distinctive communal Pampinos culture, manifest in their own rich language, creativity, and solidarity,” as noted by UNESCO’s website.

The First World War brought radical changes in both the supply and demand side of the world nitrate market, the most notable is the shift in nitrogen consumption from agricultural use towards large-scale production of gunpowder and explosives. Before the war, Germany was the largest market of Chilean nitrate, but once the trade routes of saltpeter came under British control, the core of nitrate exports moved towards Great Britain, the United States and other European countries, where it was used in the production of ammunition for the war.


The main processing facility at Santa Laura. Photo credit: El ojo etnográfico/Flickr

Denied of natural nitrate, Germany stepped up research in synthetic nitrate production leading to a crucial breakthrough when Fritz Haber (1868–1934) developed the process of nitrogen fixation through ammonia in 1913, making large-scale production of synthetic nitrogen economically feasible. This process, combined with the method developed by another Russian-German scientist and Nobel Prize winner Wilhelm Ostwald (1853–1932) for converting ammonia into nitric acid freed Germany’s military industry from its dependence on Chilean nitrate.

The development of synthetic nitrate not only prolonged the war, but also transformed the world nitrogen market. Synthetic nitrates displaced Chilean saltpeter as the main source of nitrogen, and the Latin American saltpeter industry started to decline. By the 1960s, all the mines had shutdown and sold-off for scrap.

The ghost towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura works are today the best preserved ones. The industrial area of Santa Laura mine has ruins of industrial installations and equipment, including the only leaching shed and a saltpeter grinder that remain intact today. The Humberstone site has preserved living quarters, public spaces and communal buildings of the company town. Both sites were declared National Monument in the 1970s, and in 2005 they were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO for being the “most representative remaining vestiges of an industry that transformed the lives of a large proportion of the population of Chile” and “brought great wealth to the country.”


Humberstone. Photo credit: Claudius Prößer/Flickr


Santa Laura. Photo credit: Claudio Alvarado Solari/Flickr


A swimming pool in Humberstone. Photo credit: Julie Laurent/Flickr


Humberstone. Photo credit: Julie Laurent/Flickr


The theater in Humberstone. Photo credit: Julie Laurent/Flickr


Humberstone. Photo credit: Julie Laurent/Flickr


Humberstone. Photo credit: Julie Laurent/Flickr


Humberstone. Photo credit: Julie Laurent/Flickr


Photo credit: Dan Lundberg/Flickr

Sources: UNESCO / / Wikipedia / International Encyclopedia of the First World War

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