Ghost City in Chilean Desert Serves Up Slice of History

A ghost town boasting a window onto history rises up out of the punishing, arid desert of northern Chile.

Oddly, this desolate outpost in the Atacama desert born of a frenzy for saltpeter -- a mineral once used to manufacturer gunpowder and fertilizer -- is one of this country's top tourist attractions.

The little company town dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries is called Humberstone, and the remaining snapshot it offers is vivid. The settlement was once home to 3,700 hearty souls doing very hard work, and to their families.

Here, the workers' humble quarters with corrugated metal roofs and dirt floors -- some for men with wives and kids, others for bachelors (the latter's were off limits to the former) -- or a church, and a school.

There, an old wooden movie theater in which Westerns, perfect for this kind of parched terrain, were all the rage.

Miners' kids got caught up in the fever: with wire they fashioned what were for them six-shooters of the kind they saw in the films. Their ingenuity in a very deprived environment also led them to make toy cars out of sardine cans.

It's all on display at this settlement that, along with a similar one in the same region, Santa Laura, was declared a UNESCO world heritage treasure in 2005.

The company town bears the name of James Thomas Humberstone, a British chemical engineer who came to South America in the late 19th century and played a key role in the development of the saltpeter industry.

It is a quiet, sunbaked and dilapidated museum. The creaking of windows and doors swung open or shut by desert winds is about the only sound. Just about everywhere is the off-white dust of the desert.

Other stops on the tour: the chief engineer's house, and that of the company doctor -- austere digs with a bare-bones cot and a typewriter on the desk.

Saltpeter was important because it was used to make the fertilizer sodium nitrate. UNESCO said this product transformed agricultural lands in North and South America and in Europe.

-- A city in the desert --

Maria Moscoso was born in Humberstone and spent her early years here.

"My father's job was not so hard, as he was a mechanic. But the ones who worked the saltpeter deposits were illiterate, and did backbreaking work. Very hard," Moscoso said.

Seventy percent of the workers here did mine saltpeter, or potassium nitrate. They would do their shifts at night, or early in the morning, to dodge the desert sun, said Sergio Gonzalez, a sociologist and saltpeter historian.

"But they were also the ones who earned more," Gonzalez said.

Living in the middle of nowhere, everything was shipped in by train, from the nearby port city of Iquique. Food was sold in a market that was next to a bakery and, of course, an ice factory.

Another painful hardship: wages were paid in fake money spent at the company store.

In the industry's heyday, thousands of Bolivians, Peruvians, Argentines and Chileans worked saltpeter mines in the north of Chile.

"The saltpeter works created an urban culture in the middle of the desert," said Gonzalez.

Workers saw plays, read books, organised into unions. Violence broke out at times.

Indeed, historians say worker mobilization and unrest here gave rise to the first anti-capitalist sentiment -- and the first strikes -- in Chilean history.

In 1907, saltpeter workers on strike over miserable working conditions holed up in a school in Iquique. Soldiers eventually attacked them and their families, killing between 2,000 and 3,000 people.

These days the north of Chile still thrives on a mineral, but a different one -- copper. Chile is the world's top producer of it. Saltpeter became obsolete when an artificial substitute for it emerged.

But something unique happened here back in the days of saltpeter.

UNESCO's website says Humberstone and Santa Laura forged a unique communal culture among workers and their families.

"That culture is manifest in their rich language, creativity, and solidarity, and, above all, in their pioneering struggle for social justice, which had a profound impact on social history," UNESCO says.

Source: Agence France Presse

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