“Humberstone”–the nitrate ghost town

Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works are two former saltpeter refineries

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Saltpeter is also called potassium nitrate are used in fertilizers and fireworks

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It all started in the early 1800, and in 1812 where the saltpeter was shipped at an industrial scale for the first time. In 1835 Charles Darwin visited the saltpeter work of La Noria, which was the same year the Darwin had been on the Galapagos Islands. In 1840 a study confirms the use of saltpeter as a fertilizer. In 1853 steam is applied to the nitrate leaching process, and in 1871 a railroad from Iquique (by the coast of Chile) to La Noria opens.

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The plants of Saltpeter work, Santa Laura and Humberston are built. 1875-1878 a new system for saltpeter extraction is developed and implemented, the Shanks system. Extraction of Saltpeter continues with the Shanks system. In 1910 Germany is the first country to synthesize ammonia. In 1912 saltpeter supplied 65% of the fertilizer in the world, and in 1914 Chile still controls 47% of the saltpeter production, but now the production of synthetic saltpeter has started.

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In 1918, 170 saltpeter plants are still in operation in Chile, but as the crisis of the saltpeter industry begins in 1920, this is reduced to 115 saltpeter plants. The saltpeter production is being modernized to compete with the synthetic saltpeter, but in 1935 Chilean saltpeter only represents 11 % of the world production. In 1950 Chilean saltpeter is down to 5% of the world production, and only 17 saltpeter plants are working. It all ended in 1960 when the last 4 saltpeter plants (Humberstone, Santa Laura, Peña Chica and Saltpeter World of Antofagasta) stopped their production.

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In 1970 Humberstone and Santa Laura were declared National Historic Landmarks

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During the peak period from 1890-1930, 800 worked people and lived in Humberstone, but the crisis f the thirties deeply affected the production

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Humberstone was not just a saltpeter plant, but also a town. People could live their whole life here from child to adult

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Visiting the “pulperia” (it is a rural grocery store), that have been restored to represent the former life in Humberstone

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At the “pulperia” the people of Humberstone could get everything they needed

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The bakery

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The children would go to school

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As the life were modernized in Humberstone, a theater was built a long with a swimming pool and a tennis court

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Everything is well preserved, and it is amazing how kids and adults can walk around the ghost town. You can explore houses and machinery on your own, and are allowed to touch so many things. We spend 4 hours walking around, which was a lot more than we first had planned.

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To give the town an industrial thought, a big clock was installed to impower the importance of time

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Close up photos from the office

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There are so many details

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We had a great day here, and highly recommend to go here, it is a place where both kids and adults can have fun. It is difficult to spend less than 3-4 hours walking around, and having time to enjoying an ice cream on the plaza by the clock tower. Meet us in the next post, where we finally are in San Pedro de Atacama.

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