Humberstone and Santa Laura are the best preserved of the saltpeter towns that abounded in northern Chile’s Atacama Desert until the mid-twentieth century.
From the 1870s through to the late 1950s, these two towns played an important role in the "saltpeter fever" that reigned in northern Chile as thousands of people flooded there to work the world's largest deposits of the nitrates that, until the invention of artificial fertilizers, were demanded by famers across the Americas and in Europe. Mostly abandoned today, these towns witnessed the birth, growth and decline of an industry that brought great wealth to Chile and was the cradle of its labor movement.
At the industry's peak, there were over 200 saltpeter works dotted across the Atacama Desert, the driest in the world. In this hostile environment, workers from Peru and Bolivia as well as other parts of Chile lived in company towns, forging a distinctive culture with its own rich language, customs and creative expressions.
Added to the World Heritage List in 2005, the Humberstone and Santa Laura ghost towns are located approximately 1 km apart, some 45 km from the port of Iquique. They complement each other in that the industrial area of Santa Laura is better conserved whereas, in Humberstone, it is the residential and service areas that have survived in better conditions.
At Santa Laura, it is still possible to see the leaching shed and a saltpeter grinder and installations for producing iodine and generating electricity as well as the administration building and the main square. Humberstone, on the other hand, gives a clearer picture of daily life, with its housing in a grid pattern and communal buildings as well as its huge theater and the company store.
All the saltpeter towns, which varied in size depending on the extraction process and the company, were linked by a purpose-built railway system. The remains of the line between Humberstone and Santa Laura can still be seen.
Life for the workers was grueling. As well as being exposed to the harsh desert sun and its cold nights, they faced huge differences in housing standards as compared to more senior employees and the tokens for food they received could only be exchanged at the company store.
Demand for better conditions and greater social justice led to the creation of workers' unions. Together with the incipient unions that were being formed in other sectors in the early twentieth century, they played an important role in the introduction of the country's first labor laws.