Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works

This is an historic industrial site in the Atacama desert of northern Chile, near the coastal city of Iquique. I reached it from Arequipa in a day via a couple of buses and a shared taxi over the border from Peru. I was a bit startled to find the clock had gone forward two hours in the crossing though, which meant that by the time I arrived at a tiny bus station somewhere in the suburbs of Iquique it was rather late and I had nowhere to stay. So I hailed a taxi and asked him to take me somewhere clean and cheap, but not too cheap. The hotel the driver took me to was rather closer to cheap and further from clean than I might have wished, but was fine for a couple of nights.

Humberstone Works - photo taken from top of a spoil heap

Humberstone Works – photo taken from top of a spoil heap

The next morning I found the minibus out to Humberstone quite serendipitously, having wandered in what I suspected was the right direction for the centre of town and happened upon the right place – a bus office cum shop with a vehicle outside just about to depart.

Humberstone Works - section of hand painted interpretation panel

Humberstone Works – section of hand painted interpretation panel

I actually only visited the Humberstone part of the site although Santa Laura is included in the ticket price. I’m afraid that by the time I’d seen all of the larger Humberstone, it was rather too late in the day and the longish walk down the road in the hot sun did not appeal.

Humberstone Works - random bits of historic equipment, presumably

Humberstone Works – random bits of historic equipment, presumably

These sites are the remains of both the processing works for locally mined saltpeter and the associated company town. The works produced sodium nitrate fertilizer (also used for explosives of course) that was sold all over the world and made Chile, if not the workers, a great deal of money. The works were abandoned in the 1960s after suffering decades of economic decline, being unable to compete (despite adopting new more efficient systems) with synthetic fertilizers produced via the Haber-Bosch process, first used industrially in 1913.

Humberstone Works - international advertising for Chilean nitrate fertilizer

Humberstone Works – international advertising for Chilean nitrate fertilizer

The sites were founded in 1872 in what was then part of Peru but became Chilean not long after, when Chile invaded land held by both Bolivia and Peru. As you might guess from the name, Humberstone was set up by an Englishman and there was a long British involvement in the industry which helped with their munitions supplies during WW1.

Humberstone Works - abandoned maintenance workshop

Humberstone Works – abandoned maintenance workshop

The industrial part of Humberstone is a large conglomeration of corrugated metal sheds that housed workshops, engine houses, processing areas and so on, all of which you can wander around. The maintenance shops still have lathes in them and there are strange bits of machinery lying on the ground by the steam engine shed. I just love the atmosphere of rusty abandoned industrial sites so was delighted by it all, even as my museum-professional-hat-wearing-head was appalled.

Humberstone Works - company town cinema

Humberstone Works – company town cinema

The company town of Humberstone housed nearly 4000 people at its height in the 1930s, although there had been around 3000 in the late nineteenth century. There is a town square with a cinema, hospital, school, church, company shops where workers could spend the tokens they earned as wages and sports facilities including a metal tank swimming pool.

Humberstone Works - workers' houses

Humberstone Works – workers’ houses

Accommodation ranges from large houses for managers and important professionals, through terraces of three or four room houses for families, down to shared rooms for single men. The latter fenced off to prevent any trouble it would seem.

Humberstone Works - site manager's house and offices

Humberstone Works – site manager’s house and offices

I thought I should build a rusty shed in Lego, but that seemed rather boring, so instead I went for the tiny hotel and social event venue on the main square:

Humberstone Works - company town hotel

Humberstone Works – company town hotel

Which, once I’d slightly modified it to match the number of parts I have with me, came out like this:

Lego Humberstone Works - company town hotel

Lego Humberstone Works – company town hotel

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