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Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works
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Item Details
Available to everyone
Chilean; American; British
Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works
Humberstone Theater
Exterior showing details of massing
Work Type
company towns
Image: December 11, 2018
km 47 A-16, Pozo Almonte, Región de Tarapacá, Chile
Pozo Almonte, Tarapacá, Chile
Latitude: 20.209 S
Longitude: 69.796 W
wood, packed earth, steel, plaster, corrugated tin
Chilean Nitrate Era
Total site: 573.48 ha
The theater was constructed in 1935 and finished in 1936, when 300 seats were installed, and the appropriate equipment for showing movies with sound. The addition of a theater came at a time when amenities in the salitrera were more generally being improved—the theater was added around the same time as the swimming pool and the general store. The structure was partially restored in 2003 and continues to serve as a venue for community activities. Stylistically, the building is notable for its Art Deco features, which resemble the Pueblo Deco regionalism popular in the Southwestern U.S. around the same time. In addition to movies, live theater was also staged here, much of which increasingly had political themes as workers unionized and worked towards collective action. (Source: onsite interpretive signage)
Commentary: The UNESCO site that encompasses Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works represents two of over 200 nitrate mines and associated company towns built in the Atacama Desert from the late nineteenth through early twentieth century. This two sites are complementary in their preserved structures: Humberstone contains extensive housing and community structures, while Santa Laura’s industrial structures are exceptionally well preserved. The first construction at Humberstone occurred around 1872, and the site remained active until 1960, when mining activities were finally suspended and the site abandoned. Nitrate mining fueled much of Chile’s industrialization and solidified its national economy—this lucrative export was used both as fertilizer and in the manufacture of explosives across the world. Once German scientists discovered how to chemically synthesize the compound, the market for naturally-occurring nitrate (also called saltpeter) collapsed, and many of the salitreras, or nitrate mines, of the Atacama Desert closed. Humberstone and Santa Laura were among those that continued their operations for several decades. Early on, workers were provided only with the barest of essentials in terms of housing and amenities, but in the 1930s, more community structures and recreational/educational facilities added, which explains the predominance of Art Deco styling in many of the larger buildings at Humberstone. Even though Humberstone and Santa Laura in their later years were purportedly examples of “enlightened” company towns, life was tough on the pampa (another name for the high desert of the Atacama), and workers were frequently exploited—worker movements were violently suppressed and frequently workers were paid not in currency but in “tokens” only usable at the pulperia, or general store. The hierarchy of the salitrera was also expressed architecturally, with unmarried unskilled workers relegated to housing that was little better than dormitories, middle managers given multi-bedroom apartments, and the director in a single-family house. Notably, all of the building materials besides packed earth had to be imported. Because of the significant investment and impact of British and American mine owners, a great deal of wood was imported from the west coast of the United States. Many ruins from the nitrate mining era are still visible from the major highways of northern Chile, but Humberstone and Santa Laura are among the most intact, though the site is listed as a UNESCO site “in danger.”
Contributor: Sarah Rovang
Information: “Humberstone and Santa Laura Saltpeter Works,” UNESCO, accessed March 15, 2019, and on-site interpretive signage.
Photographer: Sarah Rovang
Historic Designation
Sarah Rovang, 2018
Use of this image is in accordance with the Artstor Terms & Conditions
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