Abandoned towns are, I think, always interesting. Frozen in time, they give a glimpse into a previous existence and a very different way of life. Some of the most curious examples provide a fascinating insight into industrial history and we found a great example on our travels around Chile, just inland from Iquique, in the form of the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works.
The Atacama Desert was the main world source of nitrates in the late 19th century. Companies built whole desert towns around northern Chile, Peru and Bolivia for nitrate processing and production, often backed by financing from British companies.
These two neighbouring sites we founded in 1872; Santa Laura, by the Guillermo Wendell Nitrate Extraction Company, and Humberstone (originally called La Palma) by James Humberstone, a British chemical engineer. Both companies originally thrived and grew, but Humberstone’s La Palma quickly dominated and established itself as one of the most successful in the region. When the industry fell on hard times in the early 1900’s, Humberstone pioneered new techniques that helped revolutionised the refining process.
By 1929 and the Great Depression, German companies had perfected the industrial production of synthetic fertilizers at a far lower cost than Saltpeter and over the following few years the entire industry came close to collapse. On the brink of bankruptcy, both Santa Laura and La Palma were acquired in 1934 by Cosatan, a large Chilean industrial company. Cosatan invested heavily in modern processes and by 1940 the La Palma plant was once again a thriving business and town community. Cosatan also renamed La Palma to “Oficina Santiago Humberstone” in recognition of its founder.
The industry steadily declined through the 1940’s and 50’s, and most of the Chilean and Peruvian nitrate towns had been completely abandoned by 1960 when the industry finally collapsed.
These two abandoned sites now form a UNESCO World Heritage Site and are open to the public. Sympathetic restoration work is also being carried out to preserve the town’s heritage.
The site itself is visually very striking. Anywhere else in the world, much of the wooden and corrugated iron buildings would have all but disintegrated. However, in the driest desert on earth the fragile remains of the old processing plant and buildings still stand. It is a brutal and ugly industrial plant that ought to blight the landscape. However, the contrast of the deep reds and browns of the rusting and crumbling architecture set against the yellow desert sand and the deep blue sky is so stark that it presents itself as quite a magnificent museum.
Wandering around the Santa Laura Works gives a great insight into the old Saltpeter production process. Massive refining plants, conveyors, tall chimneys, generator buildings and pumping stations scatter the area. The bright sunlight filters through holes in various roofs and walls creating shards of light across the huge dusty industrial sheds.
It was also interesting to see evidence of the British Victorian industrial investment that dominated the industry. Much of the heavy industrial equipment such as generators and pumps which sit silently and covered in dust are all marked with the manufacturers stamps from great British industrial towns of Glasgow, Birmingham and London.
Half a mile down a dust track at Humberstone, away from the industrial production centre, is an insight into the community side of life in a nitrate town. Entering into the main town square with its (British) clock tower provides a view of the centre of the old community. A central administrative and accounts office for the Works dominates one side of the square, complete with its long wooden covered veranda.
As we wandered through the dusty streets, we came across all the elements of a thriving and prosperous town; small worker’s houses, a hospital, a school, shops, a community swimming pool (interestingly, made entirely out of cast iron), a full theatre, hotel and restaurant etc. Many of these buildings were also furnished with extremely well preserved original furnishings and artefacts.
The town is so well preserved that I found it quite easy to imagine the streets full of people, workers returning home and kids playing in the square. In many ways it must have been a hard life, completely isolated in the stifling heat of the arid desert, 50km from the nearest city. Many of the workers must have spent long shifts working in the full heat of the sun before returning home to their families in the evening, exhausted.
Yet, the feeling I got as I explored Humberstone in particular, was a strong sense of this also having once been a thriving, friendly and close community – a view that was somewhat endorsed by our guide who told us that some older people who remember living in Humberstone as children, still visit the site and still harbour fond memories.
Check out the full Santa Laura & Humberstone photo gallery by clicking here.