Humberstone: The ghost town that was once the cause of war

Saltpeter was once mined in Humberstone, in the middle of the Atacama Desert. / Humberstone

At times, the raw material was so valuable that Chile, Bolivia and Peru even went to war over it. Today Humberstone belongs to Chile – and has been abandoned for many years.

The year is 1872 when a new city is being built in the middle of the inhospitable Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Life in Humberstone, named after a British chemist, follows a single goal: the mining of saltpetre, a substance that is needed in fertilizer production. It is also known as “white gold” because of its value to the global economy.

According to the BBC, 3,500 people will soon be living in the middle of the Atacama, mining saltpeter around the clock. Humberstone becomes the largest saltpeter city in northern Chile.

At that time, the product was so popular around the world that, according to estimates by the University of Santiago de Chile, up to 60 percent of its total income came from saltpeter exports at times. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, almost all of the world’s supply of the commodity came from Chile.

Humberstone and the other industrial cities are correspondingly important for the country. In fact, they are so important that people are willing to go to war with their neighbors Bolivia and Peru.

Humberstone: The war breaks out

Although Humberstone was under Anglo-Chilean administration at the end of the 1870s, it was on the territory of Bolivia. After Bolivia also wanted to benefit from the saltpetre boom, the country levied horrendous taxes on the export of the raw material in 1878.

As a result, Chile now declares war on Bolivia. The ensuing armed conflict will last four years and cost thousands of lives.

Chile is supported by England, because the two countries jointly exploit the saltpeter. Peru, which also has saltpetre deposits on its territory, becomes an ally of Bolivia.

Ultimately, thanks to the superior British military, Chile is victorious and annexes the Bolivian province of Antofagasta and the Peruvian region of Taracapa.

The result: Humberstone and all other industrial cities in the areas are Chilean. Chile now had the sole monopoly on saltpeter exports for several decades – until the First World War.

The end of an entire industry

During the First World War, Great Britain temporarily blocked all exports to Germany by sea. Since saltpeter is no longer arriving, German researchers are looking for an alternative – and soon invent a substitute.

Fertilizers can now be produced more efficiently and at a fraction of the cost. The saltpeter, because of which a separate war broke out, is suddenly completely obsolete.

In the years that followed, Humberstone and the other industrial sites in the Atacama Desert degenerated into ghost towns. However, the dry desert air contributes to the fact that some of the places are still extremely well preserved.

In fact, Humberstone looks a little as if life could come back here soon.

And it does that regularly, at least in the form of tourism. Because Humberstone, as the formerly largest saltpeter city, is a sightseeing attraction. Since 2000, the place has officially been a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the best-preserved saltpeter town in the world.

In addition to the houses and industrial buildings, you can also see the remains of an old railway line. But nothing has been transported here for a long time.

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