Humberstone and Santa Laura contain over 200 former saltpeter works where workers from Chile, Peru and Bolivia lived in company towns and forged a distinctive communal pampinos culture. That culture is manifest in their rich language, creativity, solidarity, and their pioneering struggle for social justice.
Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works
The Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works is located 48 km (30 mi) east of the city of Iquique, in the Atacama Desert, within the Tarapacá Region of northern Chile.
The two saltpeter works are the most representative remaining vestiges of an industry that transformed the lives of a large proportion of the population of Chile and brought great wealth to the country.
This World Heritage site contains over 200 former saltpeter works where workers from Chile, Peru and Bolivia lived in company towns and forged a distinctive communal pampinos culture. That culture is manifest in their rich language, creativity, solidarity and their pioneering struggle for social justice.
In 1872, the Guillermo Wendell Nitrate Extraction Company founded the saltpeter works of Santa Laura, while the region was still a part of Peru. In the same year, James Thomas Humberstone founded the "Peru Nitrate Company", establishing the works of "La Palma". Both works grew quickly, becoming busy towns characterized by English-style buildings.
The Atacama Desert, one of the driest deserts on Earth, is a natural source of sodium nitrate, used for fertilizer and in the manufacture of explosives. The nitrate industry enriched Chile, ushering in an age of wealth and splendor unparalleled in its history.
In the remote desert Pampa, thousands of people lived and worked from the first half of the 19th century to process the largest deposit of saltpeter in the world, producing the fertilizer sodium nitrate that was to transform agricultural land in North and South America as well as Europe.
The nitrate boom continued until 1929 when the Great Depression paralyzed the industry, which never recovered when synthetic alternatives to nitrates became available.
Humberstone and Santa Laura works are the best preserved and most representative remains of a series of over 200 saltpeter works that once existed, all of which were interconnected by a specially built modern railway system, and constitute an exceptional testimony to technological progress and global exchanges which were the cornerstone of the industrial era.
In this area, workers (drawn from Chile, Peru and Bolivia to this hostile environment) lived in company towns and forged a distinctive communal Pampinos culture. The pioneering social agenda of the saltpeter workers' unions had far-reaching effects on labor laws throughout Chile and further afield.
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.
Other relevant attributes are the remains of the railway line that linked Santa Laura and Humberstone, the gravel heaps, the construction techniques, architectural styles and materials, in particular the costrón and the Pampa concrete, distinctive construction materials together with the calamine and timber that were brought from other latitudes.
The remains of saltpeter works are also present in the buffer zone which is also significant for the conservation of the characteristics of the natural setting of the Pampa which illustrate the relationship between the built environment and the adaptation to the natural setting.
The output of the industry, nitrate fertilizers, had indirectly a transforming influence on existing agricultural lands in Europe, and on newly cultivated land in other latitudes and indirectly supported the agricultural revolution of the late 19th century in many parts of the world. The remaining buildings are testimony to the social order and technical processes that drove the industry.
The place still has a strong symbolic and evocative association for the people from the Pampa, former workers and their families, who use the place for meetings and commemorations such as Saltpeter Week.