From Unbelievable Wealth to World Heritage Status

The Saltpeter Extraction Works of Humberstone and Santa Laura in Chile

Chile has very few UNESCO World Heritage sites compared to neighbouring countries. In the far north of the country you will find the Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works, which were large mining and processing sites.

Featured Photo to Humberstone: the saltpeter works created an incredible wealth for Chile - one reason they are now World Heritage listed.

The saltpeter works created an incredible wealth for Chile – one reason why Humberstone and Santa Laura are now World Heritage listed.

These are two of the best preserved examples of a former network of over 200 similar saltpeter mines, which spread across the Atacama Desert of Chile. Most were not as large as Humberstone, and didn’t have as many social amenities.

The History of Saltpeter in the Atacama Desert

Saltpeter derives from a natural process, where ocean fog and sea spray drift inland and settle on the hot and dry desert floor. The Atacama region, from southern Peru into most of northern Chile, still has the ideal conditions for the natural occurrence of saltpeter.

During the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, saltpeter was in high demand. Sodium nitrate was used worldwide as a fertiliser and to produce explosives. For Chile it meant new, enormous riches of unprecedented proportions. But the land with the rich deposits wasn’t always part of Chile.

Humberstone World Heritage Site Chile: the entire saltpeter processing in one naive painting

Humberstone World Heritage Site Chile: the entire saltpeter processing in one naive painting

The Spanish empire just defined the Atacama desert as the northern border of the General Captaincy of Chile. [Quote WikiPedia ]

The borders between countries in this desert, formerly considered as near worthless, weren’t clearly defined by the occupying Spaniards. Thus Bolivia, Peru, and Chile all laid claim to this region. For Bolivia it was the only access to the ocean and of high importance. Initially Chilean mining companies accepted Peru’s and Bolivia’s claims to part of the Atacama and negotiated mining rights with their governments.

But the congress in Bolivia never ratified these contracts and instead demanded a higher tax than agreed upon. This finally led to the “War of the Pacific” [1879 – 1883] and a huge land grab by the victorious Chileans. (In this post I don’t want to go further into this well documented history. Please read more about it on Wikipedia: here & here , or google).

The demand for the nitrate was so enormous that it soon became evident that the natural reserves would quickly run out. This inspired the development of synthetic nitrate in the 1930s , which in turn ended the demand for Chile’s saltpeter. Despite efforts to streamline the process, the site in Humberstone was finally shut down in 1960s.

Copies of international advertising signs and nitrate labels on exhibition in the Humberstone former administration building.

Copies of international advertising signs and nitrate labels on exhibition in the Humberstone former administration building.

Nowadays this region is still the centre of mining activities on an unbelievable scale. Chile and Peru combined provide around 40% of the world’s copper production (2014 statistics). Copper accounts for almost half of Chile’s exports. The region is also rich in lithium deposits – with the current push for electric cars this is the mineral of the future as the best battery technology is based on lithium cells.

The Pioneers of Chile’s North

The Atacama Desert, like all deserts, is a harsh and unforgiving environment. Up in the far north of Chile it hardly rains at all. Water comes from few rivers, which bring snow and glacier melt from the Andes down to the plains. Even today, with all the mining activities, it is a sparsely populated region and most supplies come from Santiago de Chile, some 2,000 kilometres away.

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

When the first mines were developed, it was even more difficult to source everything they needed; from construction material to machinery to goods of daily life. The World Heritage listing acknowledges the achievements of the early Pampinos [pampa inhabitants]. At Humberstone you find several rooms in former workers’ cottages, filled with exhibits showcasing how inventive the miners were at producing what they needed on-site.

There were examples of handmade tools; wooden casting moulds *) for pipes, and even toilet bowls; and simple children’s toys made from wire and empty tins. They riveted their own steam boilers and other large machinery on-site.

Some of the things made at Humberstone. From top left to bottom left: kids' pistols made from wire, other wire and can kids' toys, a section of copper riveted metal, moulds for pipes and toilet bowls, an old kitchen stove.

Some of the things made at Humberstone. From top left to bottom left: kids’ pistols made from wire, other wire and can kids’ toys, a section of copper riveted metal, moulds for pipes and toilet bowls, an old kitchen stove.

Humberstone was so large that its size justified a club for engineers, a large church, and its very own theatre – which much have been quite feat. They also had an on-site hospital, a school, a swimming pool, and a tennis court.

Nevertheless, it was a difficult life in an unforgiving environment. All of the mines were rather isolated and far removed from services and supplies. On our way to San Pedro de Atacama we came past a big, old graveyard – shockingly it contained a large number of infant graves.

Atacama Desert: One half of an old graveyard outside of a deserted Saltpeter mining town

Atacama Desert: One half of an old graveyard outside of a deserted Saltpeter mining town

The soil, which contains the saltpeter, was processed and bagged on-site. Most extraction facilities had big industrial complexes attached to them. Santa Laura is an excellent and well preserved example of this.

The site of Santa Laura conserves the remains of the industrial installations that were used for saltpeter processing such as industrial installations and equipment, including the only leaching shed and a saltpeter grinder that remain intact today, installations for manufacturing iodine, for energy production and buildings such as the administration house and the main square. The Humberstone site contains the attributes that express the quality of urban settlements, such as the living quarters, public spaces and the regular grid pattern of the Camp, with a main square around which communal buildings are clustered. [Quote World Heritage Listing ]

The World Heritage listed saltpeter works of Santa Laura in Chile's Atacama Desert

The World Heritage listed saltpeter works of Santa Laura in Chile’s Atacama Desert

Summary of our visit and some tips

The site of the former Saltpeter Extraction Works of Humberstone and Santa Laura is the second World Heritage listed industrial site we have visited in South America. Last year we saw Uruguay’s latest addition to the WHC list – the Angus Meat Works of ‘OXO’ fame .

Quite often we feel that such sites are bypassed by international tourists because they don’t purvey a sense of magnificence or breathtaking beauty like, for example, colonial cities. Nevertheless, the few industrial sites included in the UNESCO list are usually of high historic value and provide an acute insight into living and working conditions at the beginning of the “Industrial Revolution”. They can teach us so much about the life of our grand- or great-grand-parents…

Please click thumbnails below for a larger photo with description.

First of all: if you can, visit on a weekday! We went on a Saturday and it felt rather busy. Not overly crowded, but there were preparations for some festivities later in the day…

Early morning should give you cooler temperatures and less harsh light for photography. We arrived around 11am, later than we had planned. Therefore, we didn’t go across to Santa Laura for a closer inspection.

You can book bus tours from Iquique. Most seem to be small groups in Mercedes Sprinter buses.

The site is rather large. Wear solid shoes, there is old steel trash lying around and the ground is very dusty. Be prepared to walk some distances to see everything. Sun protection is advisable.

Overlanders: we parked along the dirt road, a bit away from the site, and had a quiet night. There is no shade though!

Humberstone World Heritage Site Chile: an old horse cart and a funny wooden horse

Humberstone World Heritage Site Chile: an old horse cart and a funny wooden horse

Finally: only after I had researched for this post did I realise how saltpeter comes to be. Now we are less surprised to find rich fertile fields in the desert sands of the Atacama – wherever there is any source of water. The ground naturally contains this fertiliser, and every morning fog renews this resource (which happens quite frequently along this Pacific coast).

*) mould in UK English, mold in US English: a mould or mold is a hollowed-out block that is filled with a liquid or pliable material.

The dry Atacama Desert in the north of Chile hides unbelievable riches. Around the turn of the last century the saltpeter works produced sodium nitrate to fertilise the farms of the world. Two of the extraction works, Humberstone and Santa Laura near Iquique, have been recognised by UNESCO as World Heritage sites. This acknowledges their industrial and economic importance at that time. Visit our post for more photos of this interesting historical attraction in Chile!

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Juergen

webmaster, main photographer & driver, second cook and only husband at dare2go.com. Freelance web designer with nearly 20 years of experience at webbeetle.com.au

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8 Responses

  1. Although we’ve visited many UNESCO WHS, I wasn’t aware until I read your post that there was a designation for Industrial sites also. I have to agree with you that it really is fascinating to learn more about how the world operated at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and see the evolution of technology as well as how mining the natural source and then the synthesizing of a product like saltpeter impacted regions, livelihoods and fortunes. Your pictures and description of the climate and landscape show an incredibly harsh environment which gives me a much deeper appreciation of those who lived in this area.

    • Juergen says:

      You were obviously as captivated by this WHS as we were. I think it’s important to preserve some of the remnants of the early ‘industrial revolution’ for future generations. Otherwise the young digital generation won’t have any physical references to comprehend the hardship of their forefathers.

      For more industrial heritage sites please see my reply to Donna Janke below.

  2. Donna Janke says:

    I have not seen any World Heritage industrial sites, but I am certainly more interested in seeing them after reading this. I too did not know how saltpeter came to be. That and the effort to mine it and create a community in the remote Atacama Desert is fascinating.

    • Juergen says:

      Donna, there are many more industrial World Heritage Sites in the northern hemisphere worthwhile visiting.
      For a list of UNESCO Industrial WHS (mostly in the USA and Central Europe) please visit this Wikipedia list !

      • Donna Janke says:

        Thanks Juergen for the list. A number of interesting places on it. It turns out I have seen one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the Rideau Canal in Ottawa. And I’ve seen one of the Natural Historic Sites of Canada industrial sites – the Gulf of Gerogia Cannery. Another one is in my own province and on my list to see and photograph – the Inglis Grain Elevators.

  3. cindy says:

    What an interesting place. I like old abandoned places and it would be a great place for photography – especially that graveyard.

    • Juergen says:

      Thanks for visiting our post, Cindy. One thing I have to correct: the graveyard photo is not from Humberstone! We spotted this last year when we drove from Antofagasta to Calama – it was right next to the highway.
      The graveyard photo was taken near another saltpeter mining town; it was a complex of mudbrick houses in ruins… After leaving Humberstone I noticed a similar graveyard nearby – although it was much smaller.

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