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Completely abandoned in 1961, the ghost towns of Humberstone & Santa Laura works in Chile were reopened as tourist attractions

David Goran

These haunting ghost towns are the relics of the nitrate towns that formed in northern Chile during the 19th century. Humberstone was founded in 1862 by James Thomas Humberstone as the nitrate mining center of “Oficina La Palma“ (later, in 1925, renamed as Humberstone in honor of its founder).

This town was founded in 1862, around a nitrate mine in La Palma

This town was founded in 1862, around a nitrate mine in La Palma. Source: Claudius Prößer/Flickr

They are located in the north of Chile in a roughly 700 km strip of land in the Atacama Desert

They are located in the north of Chile in a roughly 700 km strip of land in the Atacama Desert. Source: Carlos Varela/Flickr

While “La Palma“ became one of the largest saltpeter extractors of the whole region, Santa Laura did not do well, as production was low. It was taken over in 1902 by the Tamarugal Nitrate Company and in 1913 Santa Laura halted its production until the Shanks extraction process was introduced, which enhanced productivity. Both Humberstone and Santa Laura have made the most of the period in which nitrate trade was on great demand. Both works grew quickly, becoming busy towns characterized by lovely buildings in the English style.

The main processing facility at Santa Laura which was smaller and less successful than its neighbor Santiago Humberstone

The main processing facility at Santa Laura which was smaller and less successful than its neighbor Santiago Humberstone. Source: Dan Lundberg/Flickr

The towns saw their heydays as a combined nitrate mining and processing center in the 1930s and ’40s

The towns saw their heydays as a combined nitrate mining and processing center in the 1930s and ’40s. Source: Carlos Varela/Flickr

However, the economic model collapsed during the Great Depression of 1929 because of the development of the synthesis of ammonia by the Germans Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch, which led to the industrial production of fertilizers. Practically bankrupt, both works were acquired by COSATAN (Compañía Salitrera de Tarapacá y Antofagasta) in 1934. The company tried to produce a competitive natural saltpeter by modernizing Humberstone, which led to its becoming the most successful saltpeter works in 1940. At its height, Salitrera Humberstone had a population of some 3,700 inhabitants.

The nitrate boom continued until 1929 when the Great Depression paralyzed the industry, which never recovered when synthetic alternatives to nitrates became available.

The nitrate boom continued until 1929 when the Great Depression paralyzed the industry, which never recovered when synthetic alternatives to nitrates became available. Source: El ojo etnográfico/Flickr

Difficult preservation conditions (high levels of salt contamination) mean that they are on the list of endangered objects.

Difficult preservation conditions (high levels of salt contamination) mean that they are on the list of endangered objects. Source: Julie Laurent/Flickr

Nitrate is an essential ingredient in fertilizer, but in the ’30s, a cheap synthetic substitute was create­d, effectively rendering nitrate (also called saltpeter) obsolete. With the need for mined nitrate diminished, the towns of Humberstone and Santa Laura began to decline alongside the industry they were built on.

Humberstone retains not only its refining machinery and warehouses, but its own town, complete with a theater, church, and hotel.

Humberstone retains not only its refining machinery and warehouses, but its own town, complete with a theater, church, and hotel. Source: Mr Hicks46/Flickr

Theater in Humberstone Saltpeter Works Chile

Theater in Humberstone Saltpeter Works Chile. source

The towns suffered a slow demise, taking three decades to become completely abandoned. It wasn’t until 1961 that the factory offices (which had continued to support a handful of residents) shut down completely. At the factories, the machinery remains and the workers’ houses are around today.

Although the towns were abandoned, the spirit of the society that lived in them hasn’t been forgotten.

Although the towns were abandoned, the spirit of the society that lived in them hasn’t been forgotten. Source: Carlos Varela/Flickr

This abandoned mine is nonetheless a significant landmark in Chile's history and many tourists visit there annually

In 1970, both towns were opened to tourism. Source: Carlos Varela/Flickr

They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

They were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005. Source: Carlos Varela/Flickr

In 1970, the government of Chile declared both of the towns as national monuments and they were opened to tourism. And in 2005, they were declared World Heritage Sites by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which should protect the towns from destruction or development and help ensure their future preservation.