Ghost Towns: Humberstone & Santa Laura, Chile

The most abandoned places in the world are mines. The mining industry has spotted the American southwest with old gold, silver and copper mines– ghost towns which are remnants of bygone days. Since mining isn’t exclusive to the United States, it comes as no surprise that there are mining camps in other countries that have been abandoned over time.In Chile’s Province of Iquique sit two abandoned Saltpeter (Potassium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrate) Mines– Humberstone and Santa Laura.

Historically, saltpeter has been used as a fertilizer by the Incas and Atacamenos. It has also been used to create explosives. Originally, it was the increased demand for explosives that enabled nitrate mines to pop up as far back as 1810. Chile boasted the largest saltpeter cache and by the 1830’s they were supplying the element to Great Britain, the United States of America, and France.

In the 1830’s demand for saltpeter increased as the modern world discovered its fertilizing properties. Demand soared even higher. Having the largest deposit of saltpeter in the world, Chile profited greatly as the country became the primary producer of natural nitrate after the 1879 “Saltpeter War” between Chile, Bolivia and Peru.

The aftermath [of the Saltpeter War] encouraged European investment and this in turn acted as a trigger for a surge in the nation’s economy. By 1890 saltpeter accounted for 50% of the country’s total revenue; by 1913 80% of all its exports.

(Above Quote from: – Historical Description)

It was in 1862, that the Peruvian Nitrate Company began a Saltpeter mining operation called La Palma (later known as Humberstone). The mine became one of the largest saltpeter mines in the area. Nearby, in 1872, the Barra y Risco Company opened the smaller Santa Laura mine. Both mines struggled as economic crisis hit in the early 1900’s as World War I wreaked havoc on over-seas trade routes and European investors withdrew.

In 1933, La Palma was shut down. On November 21, 1934, it reopened under the Chilean Saltpeter Company (COSACH) which changed the name of the mine from La Palma to Humberstone. Operations expanded as COSACH revitalized and expanded the mining operations throughout the 1930’s. Unfortunately, Chile was no longer a world distributor of nitrates.

By [the] 1930s only 10% of the world’s nitrate came from Chile and this had dropped to 3% by [the] 1950s. COSACH’s successor, COSATAN, which had a monopoly of saltpeter…

(Above Quote from: – Historical Description)

Other saltpeter mines, such as the Santa Laura mine were also taken over by COSTAN. But, in 1959, COSTAN was no more and all the mines were shut down. They were auctioned in 1961 when they were purchased for scrap by a private investor. The Chilean people decided that these properties held much valuable history of Chile’s past as a world saltpeter provider. In January 1970, the properties were declared national monuments. While this declaration has prevented the mines from being destroyed , it hasn’t stopped them from deteriorating piecemeal. It also hasn’t stopped the site from being vandalized and scavenged.

In 1995, ownership of the Humberstone and Santa Laura mines was given to the ‘Ministerio de Bienes Nacionales’ (National Assets Ministry) who then gave rights to the mines to the Saltpeter Museum Corporation. They will have control of the mines until 2025.

Though its buildings have deteriorated, the memory and greatness of the Humberstone and/or Santa Laura mines is still celebrated every November.

(To view photos, I encourage you to click on the source links below.)