Located in the Atacama Desert, 45 km from the city of Iquique, Humberstone and Santa Laura bear witness to the birth, growth and decline of the nitrate industry that marked Chile’s economy between the 19th and 20th centuries. From the 1870s through to the 1950s, these sites played a fundamental role in the “saltpeter fever”, stimulated by the increasing demand for sodium nitrate, a fertilizer used on agricultural lands in America and Europe.
These mining towns were home for more than eight decades to thousands of people, who worked extracting and processing nitrate, and forged a distinctive pampino culture. This land, characterised by a hostile environment and one of the driest deserts in the world, became a source of great prosperity to the country. It echoes the struggle of miners and their families for better living conditions, which gave birth to the Chilean labour movement.
The Nitrate Industry (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
The Nitrate Industry
Following the end of the Saltpeter War between Chile, Peru and Bolivia in the 1880s, the Chilean territory annexed the provinces of Tarapacá and Antofagasta. These lands had a great variety of minerals. Among them, nitrate, which dramatically changed the country’s economy. During that period Chile became the world’s largest producer of this natural fertilizer.
Since the early 19th century, the Atacama Desert’s saltpeter was well known in North America and Europe for both its agricultural and industrial properties; it was used as a natural fertilizer and raw material for the production of gunpowder. In Chile, nitrate exploitation was mainly led by English private companies, which had to pay high export taxes to the Chilean state, thus bringing in great wealth. After the First World War, the increasing competition from artificial saltpeter resulted in English companies gradually abandoning the nitrate industry in Chile.
The Office of Santa Laura
Built in the early 1870s by Guillermo Wendell’s Nitrate Extraction Company, this mining town was acquired by the Peruvian government in 1876, but after the end of the Saltpeter War the region was annexed to Chile’s territory. After an interruption in 1913, the office was modernized and reopened in the 1920s, at which point almost 500 people lived there. It kept working following the Great Depression of 1929, and its administration was co-shared between private companies and the Chilean state. It stopped functioning and was abandoned in 1960. Nowadays, the site boasts the remains of the industrial installations once used for nitrate processing, ruins of the urban settlement, the administration house and the leaching tower. This latter, which stands out for its monumentality, was mainly built of Oregon pine wood and metal. Even though they have deteriorated over time, these materials are icons of the former saltpeter industry in Chile.
The Office of Humberstone
Originally named La Palma, this office was built in 1872 by the Peruvian Nitrate Company. By the late 1880s, it was already one of the main nitrate producers in the Tarapacá region. Following the Great Depression, La Palma stopped functioning, to resume its works in 1934, when private companies shared the administration with the Chilean state. During this period, the office was restructured and changed its name to Santiago Humberstone, honouring the British chemical engineer who made important contributions to the nitrate industry in Chile. Until 1940, Humberstone reached its development peak, with a population of 3,700. However, following a severe crisis, it stopped functioning in 1960. Nowadays, although the industrial installations have been mostly dismantled, the site boasts the remains of the urban settlement. This area constitutes an invaluable evidence of human adaptation to the environment and the unique culture developed by its inhabitants.
Saltpeter Exploitation Systems (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Saltpeter Exploitation Systems
Nitrate was exploited in Chile through three production systems, known as “Paradas”, “Shank” and “Guggenheim”. The Paradas System, the most rudimentary of them, was invented by Czech naturalist and geologist Tadeo Haenke and was used by the nitrate industry’s pioneers in the Tarapacá region. According to this system, saltpeter was heated over a direct fire to extract pure nitrate.
In the 1870s, British engineer Santiago Humberstone brought the Shank System to Chile, which led to the modernisation and growth of the offices, increased their production and reduced costs. Lastly, the Guggenheim System was introduced by engineer Elías Cappelen Smith and implemented in Chile in the 1920s. This was the most efficient system and managed to enhance the production process. However, having developed in the midst of the Chilean saltpeter crisis, it was adopted by two offices only: María Elena and Pedro de Valdivia.
Nitrate Railway Line (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Nitrate Railway Line
During the nitrate boom, there were over two hundred saltpeter works in northern Chile. All of them were interconnected by a specially-built modern railway system, whose construction began in the second half of the 19th century and was financed by private British companies.
The remains of the line that linked Humberstone and Santa Laura reveal the great infrastructure that made the transportation of nitrate over 45 km possible, from the saltpeter offices to the port of Iquique. Once in Iquique, nitrate was shipped and exported to North America and Europe.
Settlement on the Atacama Desert
Motivated by the great development of the nitrate industry, from the 1870s through to the late 1950s, thousands of people migrated to the most arid desert on Earth. In the Pampa, average annual temperatures rise to 30°C during the day and at night they plummet to 2°C. Moreover, because annual rainfall is next to nil, it is impossible to grow anything. In this hostile environment, miners and their families coming from Peru, Bolivia and Chile lived and worked in company-towns for decades, processing the largest deposit of this mineral in the whole world and forging a distinctive culture. Men always predominated and women of all ages were scarce. The majority of them were country folk who had decided to emigrate because of the poor conditions reigning on Chilean farms and estates. The workers of Bolivian and Peruvian origin, on the other hand, generally came from the Andean valleys.
The Offices’ Urban Planning (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
The Offices’ Urban Planning
The arrival of thousands of people to the Atacama Desert highlighted the need for urban development planning at the saltpeter offices, paving the way to a region-wide transformation during the first half of the 20th century. While Santa Laura’s urban installations have been mostly dismantled, the remains of Humberstone’s old town display the “Pampa” way of living and the infrastructure that made it possible: a regular grid pattern, living quarters that respond noticeably to a set hierarchy in the labour force, marital status and family and public buildings.
Humberstone was built in stages, which are visible from the viewpoint of the materials used as well as the architectural styles. For example, whilst the houses with their simple urban designs respond to the concept of company-town, the Administration House and Theatre – with their Georgian and Art Deco styles, respectively – evoke a sharp improvement in the quality of life and resemblance to architecture in other latitudes.
Humberstone’s General Store (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Humberstone’s General Store
The isolation of Humberstone and Santa Laura, located far away from main cities, made it necessary for the companies to provide food, water and other elements to the mine-workers and their families. Each office had its own general store (called pulpería), where the employees could get all they needed to survive, from groceries to clothes.
Miners did not receive money for their job, as their salary consisted of tokens that were handled periodically. Made of metal or plastic, they were delivered by the offices and could only be used at the general store in exchange for a variety of products. This allowed the store owners to fix higher prices compared to other towns. It also made it extremely difficult for workers to return to their native lands.Nowadays, Humberstone has transformed its general store into an Interpretation Centre, where visitors can imagine how the tokens system worked.
Humberstone’s Theatre (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
The theatre of Humberstone’s office is located in front of the main square and was built between 1934 and 1935. Of Art Deco style and made of Oregon pine wood, it reflects the improvement in living conditions that the offices experienced during that period. With a capacity of around 360, in its heyday the theatre hosted operetta and zarzuela companies, as well as popular plays.
The building was also used as a cinema, projecting a variety of films that were a major amusement for mine-workers and their families during their free time. While the aim was to entertain, the content also served to educate, with the mise en scène of topics that were heavily laden with high social, political and ideological themes.
The theatre’s seats, floor and ceiling decoration have been recently restored, and nowadays this building is one of the office’s main attractions.
Humberstone’s Primary School (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Humberstone’s Primary School
A great number of children migrated to the Pampa with their parents. Due to high poverty rates existing among mine-workers and their families, most of them had to work at the nitrate industry as well, receiving a lower salary than their adult counterpart. Their education was directly affected by this situation; although some attended school after working hours, most did not receive formal education at all. This scene started to change after the proclamation of the compulsory primary education law in 1920, which resulted in an increase of schools in company-towns. In addition, attending school on a regular basis became a minimal requirement for children to work.
Nowadays, the recently restored classrooms of San Mauricio School (Humberstone’s primary school) attest to the effort of teachers and parents to grant children the right to basic education despite extreme conditions in the middle of the Atacama Desert.
Pampa Culture (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Pampinos is the demonym used for the people who lived in the Pampa’s company-towns, where they forged tangible and cultural and intangible cultural ties related to the industry. On the one hand, the physical remains of Humberstone and Santa Laura reflect the particular way of life developed in the Saltpeter Works, in terms of urban planning, social organisation, recreation, and so on. On the other, the Pampa Culture manifested itself in the use of a peculiar language binding together workers from many countries, specific food preparations, creativity, solidarity, a common sense of identity and a shared memory.
One of the most important legacies of pampinos was their struggle for social justice and better life and work conditions, which deeply influenced Chile’s social and historical processes. To this day, the Pampa Culture still has a relevant symbolic association to former mine-workers, their families and their descendants.
Pampinos and the Chilean Labour Movement (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Pampinos and the Chilean Labour Movement
Mine-workers and their families had to confront difficult living and working conditions in the Pampa. Along with their exposure to the harsh desert weather, they had to face poverty, long working hours, an unequal relation to more senior employees, and a salary paid in tokens. Their fight for a better quality of life and greater social justice motivated the birth of saltpetre workers’ unions. Together with other emerging unions that were rising across the country during the first decades of the 20th century, they advanced pioneering social demands that played a fundamental role in the institution of Chile’s first labour laws.
Nowadays, through a significant exhibition, these struggles are revived on site. The displays narrate the origins of the Chilean labour movement, which brought about an enduring social and political transformation.
Humberstone and Santa Laura’s Abandonment (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Humberstone and Santa Laura’s Abandonment
Following the First World War, growing competition from the recently developed artificial saltpeter resulted in a gradual decline of this natural fertilizer’s commercialisation. Being Chile a major nitrate exporter, this situation had a severe impact on the country’s economy and led to the progressive closure of the Saltpeter Works. This triggered dramatic unemployment, poverty increase, as well as the migration of thousands of men to central and southern Chile.
The Santa Laura and Humberstone offices were not an exception. After their final closure in 1960, their last inhabitants abandoned the sites. In the following decades, their buildings and infrastructure started deteriorating: they were partially dismantled and their movable parts –such as signposts, door frames and furniture – were looted.
Recognition and protection measures (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Recognition and Protection Measures
Acknowledging the progressive deterioration that Santa Laura and Humberstone suffered after their abandonment and their great value as a testimony of the nitrate boom in Chile, in 1970 the Chilean state began working on measures to protect and recognize this heritage. The first one was their declaration as a Historical Monument by the National Monuments Council, which is the most important statute for safeguarding tangible heritage in the country. From 2001, both sites are under the umbrella of the Saltpeter Museum Corporation, which has led various restoration works. Four years later, in 2005, Humberstone and Santa Laura entered the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The main criteria used to define these sites’ Outstanding Universal Value relate to both their importance for the nitrate industry in the world, and their contribution to Chile’s economy. Besides, these Saltpeter Works bear witness to the development of a particular set of skills, knowledge, culture and urban planning associated with this industry.
Humberstone and Santa Laura on the List of World Heritage in Danger (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
List of World Heritage in Danger
Along with the inscription of Humberstone and Santa Laura on the World Heritage List in 2005, these sites were also placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, in order to cater for the serious threats to the conservation of their authenticity and integrity.
The vulnerability of the structures and looting have been the main issues affecting both sites. These problems are the result of environmental conditions, natural disasters, abandon and human action. In this regard, in recent years several measures have been adopted for the safeguarding of these sites. At the 2019 World Heritage Committee held in Azerbaijan, the site was removed from the World Heritage List in Danger.
Conservation efforts (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Among the conservation efforts undertaken to date in the Saltpeter Works, one can find interpretive design, security measures, the delimitation of the site’s buffer zone, the restoration of several buildings, operational planning, the construction of visitor infrastructure, the reinforcement of Santa Laura’s leaching tower, and the building of a bypass to facilitate arrival to the sites.
There is also an array of educational initiatives, aimed at giving conservation guidelines to specialist audiences and communicating Humberstone and Santa Laura’s values to the general public.
Alongside these efforts, various other measures are planned for the near future – such as the opening of the iodine museum – which seek to preserve the sites’ authenticity and integrity for future generations.
Humberstone’s interpretation centre (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Humberstone’s Interpretation Centre
Humberstone’s Interpretation Centre occupies the general store’s former building, which has been refurbished to host an exhibition recreating scenes from pampinos’ everyday life. Through human-scale sculptures, visitors can imagine how these people worked, shopped and socialized. The Centre also gives an account of the nitrate industry’s history in Chile, through glimpses at railway and maritime transport, the token system and gender roles.
This interpretive design facilitates the understanding of and adds value to the site, thus contributing to the conservation and protection of the site’s Outstanding Universal Value.
Saltpeter museum corporation (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Saltpeter Museum Corporation
The Saltpeter Museum Corporation, a non-profit private institution shaped by the offices’ former inhabitants and their descendants, is the site manager. Founded in 1997 with the purpose of recovering Humberstone and Santa Laura’s cultural heritage, it works in coordination with the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage and UNESCO to protect, restore and administrate these Saltpeter Works. In 2002, the Corporation acquired the land occupied by Humberstone and Santa Laura.
Saltpeter Week (2005) by Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter WorksUNESCO World Heritage
Every third week of November, “Saltpeter Week” is celebrated in the Tarapacá Region. The commemoration programme, which is elaborated by pampinos’ associations, includes activities that take place both in Iquique – a major nearby city – and in Humberstone. This event gathers over two thousand visitors annually to celebrate the Pampa Culture and remember Humberstone’s old times.
Among them are former inhabitants (who are especially dressed for the occasion and exhibit their associations’ banners), their descendants, and tourists coming from all over the country. The great number of people attending this celebration reflects the strong symbolic and social values that are associated with the site, as well as its relevance for pampinos in present times.
This exhibit was created by Ministerio de las Culturas, las Artes y el Patrimonio de Chile: www.cultura.gob.cl/
More on Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works and World Heritage: whc.unesco.org/en/list/1178
Photos: Patricio Carvajal; Chilean National Archive; National History Museum Collection; Jorge López, SNPC; L. Boudat & Co., Chile’s National Library Collection; National Monuments Council; Marcelo Espinoza, SNPC; Anyelina Rojas; Arturo Reyes; Arturo Morales