Humberstone is a ghost town under the clear blue sky of the Atacama Desert in Chile. Originally called La Palma, it was renamed Humberstone in the Thirties after James Humberstone, the British engineer who migrated to Peru in the XIX century, gave impetus to the mining activities in the Atacama region and had the original settlement constructed. The town saw its acme in the Thirties and Forties, when it reached a population of almost 4000 people. Subsequently, it declined rapidly and in less than two decades it was completely abandoned. Nowadays, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a rusting testament of one of the two products, alongside with guano, which once were called the “White Gold” of South America.

Road with a pole and the abandoned houses of the bachelor workers in Humberstone

The houses for the bachelor workers, repeating the same construction patterns forming blocks in the residential areas of Humberstone

Humberstone and several other mining towns were founded in the late XIX century when the saltpeter and nitrate industries were in a surge. The dry climate of the Atacama Desert had permitted vast amounts of high quality saltpeter deposits to accumulate, a mixture of many minerals among which the principals are sodium nitrate and potassium nitrate, and locally found in a kind of rock called “caliche”. In the 1870s, the Guillermo Wendell Nitrate Extraction Company and the Peru Nitrate Company (this latter by James Humberstone) were founded when the region was still part of Peru. After the War of the Pacific the region became part of Chile. The nitrate towns continued to grow rapidly, with a railroad connecting them, and Humberstone became one of the main nitrate towns.

The town was built for and around the extraction activities of saltpeter, the mixture of nitrates particularly abundant in the Atacama Desert and sought after as a fertilizer in the agricultural boom following the mechanization of the late XIX century and first decades of the XX century, when industrial fertilizers were not available yet. The age of saltpeter lasted from the 1870s to the first quarter of the XX century: at that time Chile was the major producer of saltpeter in the world and about 75% of the country’s export revenues derived directly from this product.

Posters in several languages showing saltpeter as a fertilizer in agriculture

Posters dating to the first decades of the XX century promoting the use of Chile nitrate as a fertilizer in agriculture

Rusted smokestack of the furnaces where the saltpeter minerals were cooked in Humberstone in the Atacama Desert of Chile

Smokestack of the furnaces where the saltpeter minerals were cooked

Built for the mining activities, the town soon took a very organized shape, with different residential areas for the managers, the workers with families and the bachelor workers, using the same architectural patterns repeated over and over along the square blocks. Nevertheless the town soon hosted all the amenities of urban life: several shops, a church, a school, a theatre, a small hospital, a tennis club, a hotel, and even a swimming pool built using the metal hull of a ship. However, the workers received their salaries not in cash but in tokens, some kind of a local money minted by the mining company and valid only within its settlements.

The small hospital in the foreground and the theatre in the background in the the ghost town Humberstone in Chile

The small hospital of Humberstone in the foreground and the theatre in the background

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