When you spot a name like Humberstone on a map of South America, the interest is already piqued. As I asked the bus driver to let me get off there, in the middle of the Atacama Desert, he looked at me as if he were to deliver me to certain death by thirst and vultures. He knew what I couldn’t suspect: Humberstone was indeed a town, but nobody lived there anymore. “One dead guy more or less doesn’t make any difference,” he may have secretly thought, but he wished me “suerte” – good luck.
“Water would have been more useful than good luck,” I pondered not much later, scuffling through the sun-scorched sand and spotting the odd storm on the horizon, swirling up – what else – more sand.
Vultures I didn’t spot, but I knew they and the snakes and the scorpions would come rushing as soon as I were to collapse from exhaustion. A fresh and juicy human body would be a rare feast in the world’s driest desert that not even a snake on the strictest vegetarian diet could withstand.
It was so hot that my skin got burned under the sleeves of the shirt. Only my hat prevented my hair from catching fire. From Jim Button you know the Fata Morgana phenomenon, but I didn’t even see a mirage town anywhere. My will to survive was only kept alive by the prospect of a city with green parks, cool drinks and a well-stocked library. The map even indicated a swimming pool.
But what use is a map when there are no points of orientation? You can spot a good adventure when, during the course of it, you say to yourself “what a stupid idea!” at least once. I had already reached that point when once again, I wiped the sand from my eyes and spotted a tinny monster. A train engine!
That was a good sign, for where there is a train engine, there is life. Where there is a train engine, there is a train station, a timetable and a coke machine. I was saved!
Or so I thought. Until I looked around and realized that the “station” was rather deserted. Even the tracks had been dismantled or stolen. Only the wooden ties had remained and were still pointing the way.
Conveniently though, there was an enormous mound of earth next to the tracks. When lost, you should always aim for the highest point to get an overview. Climbing it furiously, I kept sliding back down, but the very last hurdle of what looked like the edge of a crater was helpfully equipped with stairs.
And then I saw Humberstone.
The city for which I had walked so far.
An oasis in the desert.
A source of life amid the sea of death.
Civilization and safety.
Full of anticipation for the amenities and pleasures connected with a city, I ran down the other side of the hill, spotted a pavilion in the center of the square and was getting excited about ice cream and cold drinks.
Until I stood before it and had to accept that it was closed. Actually, everything was so faded, silty and deserted that it must have been closed for a long time.
The whole town looked as if the citizens had fled one day to never return. And it was quiet. No noise, no screaming, no cars, no dogs, no machines, no music. Dead silence. Eternal peace.
With one exception: through the whistling wind, I heard something squeak. Regularly, about every three seconds. The source of the metallic and unpleasant sound seemed to be just around the corner. If it was a human being, I didn’t want to startle it, so I coughed on purpose before walking around said corner – but I only saw a dark creature (no idea if it was a man, woman, child or monster) scurrying away.
The sound had been caused by a swing which was still dangling back and forth. Very spooky.
Obviously, that made me all the more curious. Either the unknown person was a hobo like me, or the remaining inhabitants of Humberstone didn’t have any desire for contact. Maybe they were contaminated? Victims of experiments on humans? I had already spotted the industrial plants and blast furnaces, but hadn’t seen anything yet that would have told me what it actually was that had been mined or produced here.
I had to investigate.
Thus, I looked around inside the factory buildings,
climbed through the crumbling roof,
saw more steam engines than in a railway museum,
found out that German companies had always dominated the world market in any technology,
climbed into pits,
scaled shaking towers,
got an overview
and determined competently: Humberstone must have been a saltpeter work. “Of course! Not for nothing, Chile saltpeter is another name for sodium nitrate (NaNO3),” I remembered as one remembers things from chemistry class 25 years ago. The caliche ore deposits here were the largest natural reserves of sodium nitrate; valuable enough for Chile, Peru and Bolivia to fight a war over this stretch of desert, which was won by Chile.
Admittedly, the part about chemistry class is made up. Only thanks to the helpful, detailed and lovely presentation boards on the premises, I could attempt to understand at least the basics of what the purpose of Humberstone had been.
To be honest, I still haven’t really understood it. As I already figured out in said high school chemistry class, I am simply more of a social than a natural scientist. Hence I left the still smelling chimneys and walked back into town to take a look at the living conditions of the saltpeter workers.
To sum it up: the up to 3500 people living in Humberstone didn’t live too badly.
The houses for the workers and their families were spacious and cozy.
and had a front yard,
which apparently even produced fruits and vegetables,
Only the single workers had to live in barracks,
but for that, they had the bar – unfortunately dried out when I visited – right across the road.
The city planner had been thoughtful. Humberstone actually conveyed the impression of a cute little town where theater, swimming pool, church, school and hospital could easily be reached on foot, while the emission-causing industrial premises were located a bit aside (the top left on the map).
And of course there was a railroad for the way to work and back home.
I hung around for a while, waiting for the train to depart, but nothing moved. Finally, I had to realize that Humberstone really was a ghost town. The saltpeter works had been operating since 1872 and beginning in 1934, they were expanded under the name of the company’s founder, James Thomas Humberstone. Most of the buildings still standing are from that time, although the decline of the saltpeter business already began in the 1930s because German scientists had discovered a way to produce ammonia on an industrial scale, rendering saltpeter superfluous as a fertilizer. In 1960, both the works and the city were closed. Thus, all buildings that you see on the photos haven’t been inhabited for more than 50 years. Anywhere else in the world, the wooden houses would long have been taken over by plants and mold, but the aridity of the Atacama Desert preserves the ghost town in the exact state it was in when the last train took the workers and their families towards unemployment.
Equally untouched since 1960 was the clock tower, indicating a different time on its two clocks, none of its hands moving anymore, probably because they noticed that nobody ain’t watching.
That wouldn’t have happened when workers and schoolchildren still had their days dictated by that clock.
Yes, there was a school in Humberstone. From 1920 on, Chilean law required that company towns, too, establish an elementary school if there were at least 20 children of school age. The busiest year was 1942, when 463 children were learning and playing at this school under the supervision of 8 teachers.
After school, they ran to the swimming pool, a true luxury in the desert.
I can imagine that the existence of a swimming pool made it easier for the company to recruit workers and for workers to win their children’s consent to the move into the middle of nowhere. And once daddy had the children on his side thanks to the pool, momma couldn’t say nothing much no more.
But the ladies didn’t lack opportunities for amusement and activities either. There was a tennis court
on which they could, thanks to electric lighting, even play at night
and a theater and cinema.
The theater is typical for the construction style in Humberstone. Wood, clear edges, rectangular corners, almost cubic, flat roofs, high interior, often with raised skylights.
Is this Art Deco? In any case, it must have been le dernier cri in the 1930s, for it still exudes the spirit of modernity today.
Even the church displays only the slightest inclination of the roof.
The priest’s notes for the last sermon were still on the altar.
Speaking of Jesus: you know the story in which he transforms water into wine? Well, I do it the other way round and therefore have to pour some water into the wine now.
Walking through the ruins of Humberstone, one can easily imagine how children of laborers and children of engineers were floundering about in the pool together, while the ladies watched a sociocritical theater play, and the father beamed with joy as he extracted nitrate because the manual labor provided his family with an idyllic life, the company with riches and the republic with progress.
It wasn’t like that. At least not always.
This mine had been operating under the name La Palma since 1872 and it was a company town as you know them from John Steinbeck‘s books. All stores and houses were owned by the mining company. The workers weren’t paid in money, but with tokens which they could only use in the company’s own shops, where, due to the monopoly, the prices were often usuriously inflated. Thus, the workers couldn’t shop anywhere else, let alone save anything. The company had its own security service which functioned as the police on the premises. In cases of mistreatment by superiors, dangerous working conditions or delayed payment, there wasn’t any point in complaining to them.
In December 1907, a general strike broke out in the whole province. The main demands were payment in cash, calibrating the scales in the company stores, safety measures to prevent workplace accidents, in particular burns, and a location where the workers could organize their own night school.
That was too much for the factory owners. The Chilean government referred to the autonomy of collective bargaining and didn’t get involved until, after a few weeks, it became obvious that the strikers wouldn’t return to work. Instead, more than 10,000 people including the wives and children of the striking workers, were camping at Santa Maria School in Iquique. The established way of dealing with labor disputes at the time (not only in South America) was to deploy the military. Three days before Christmas 1907, the strike was brutally crushed with a massacre of the workers and their families. About 2,000 people were shot.
It should take another generation until the working and living conditions in the saltpeter towns improved.
But for that, farmers around the world got cheap Chile saltpeter.
- The two former mining towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura now are UNESCO world heritage sites and museums.
- Humberstone is about 50 km east of Iquique, directly by the highway crossing Chile from north to south. It is signposted and can easily be reached by car or bus. To continue the journey from there is no problem either. When I left, I went to the bus stop towards Iquique and had to wait no more than 15 minutes for the next minibus.
- The ticket price for adults is 3000 pesos, which is 4.50 dollars.
- I spent almost the whole day in Humberstone. There were many more buildings than shown in this article and it really doesn’t get boring. Because all buildings are open, you can always find a shady place to rest.
- But there is nothing to drink, although the heat is tormenting. Bring a few liters of water and a hat against the sun!
- In Santa Laura, there is far less to see. If you only have time for one of the saltpeter towns, I would focus on Humberstone.
- Although the premises are a museum now, I didn’t see a single guard after buying the ticket at the entrance. You can move and climb around completely freely. Great!