Ghostly nitrate works

Trip Start Jul 02, 2009
Trip End Jun 28, 2010

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Flag of Chile  ,
Wednesday, October 21, 2009

After a couple of days in Santiago, I put the bulk of my stuff in the luggage room where I was staying and flew to  Iquique.  This is where Arturo Prat became Chile's national hero although he never really got round to enjoying the benefits of being a national hero because he died in the process of becoming one.  The story of Prat's national heroics are well known and a presumably drilled into every Chilean schoolchild under pain of deportation to Peru or loss of mobile phone.  After four hours of battle with the Huáscar  Prat's ship (Esmeralda) was rammed by the Peruvian warship.  His response was to board the Huáscar but, due to some communication difficulties, the boarding party consisted just of Prat and another officer who was mortally wounded almost immediately.  If you were wondering why warships were still ramming each other in 1879 you might be interested to know that in 1893 a Royal Navy battleship sank another battleship with the ram that was an integral part of its design.  Unfortunately it was another Royal Navy Battleship with which it was participating in peacetime maneuvers on a perfectly calm and clear day off the coast of Lebanon.  There is a Prat University in Iquique and in the UK this would probably describe an institution with a focus on Media Studies.

I arrived Iquique with a couple of objectives.  I wanted to visit the Volcán Isluga National Park and check out the nitrate works at Humberstone and Santa Laura.   It soon became clear that a day trip to Isluga was going to be difficult because the tour operators require at least four people before they'll run a trip.  Apparently there were some other people interested so I registered interest (without parting company with any money) and headed off to see the nitrate works. 

The oxymoronically titled War of the Pacific could easily have been subtitled The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It was good for Chile (gained territory), bad for Peru (lost territory) and ugly for Bolivia (became landlocked).  This part of Chile used to be in Peru and the presence of rich mineral deposits in the desert appears to have been a factor in getting the war started.  Nitrates are used to make fertilizers and explosives and, until Fritz Haber spoiled the party with his eponymous process, there was plenty of money to be made digging them out of the ground. 

I went first to Humberstone which is less than an hour from Iquique.  It's part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and I pretty much had the entire place to myself (just like on the visit to the Jesuit missions in Paraguay).   It was about noon because I'd spent some of the morning trying to arrange a trip to Isluga and I was glad that I'd packed an extra water bottle.  First I checked out the nitrate works and found lots of abandoned hardware.  It's the sort of place that one could spend hours wandering around although I did notice a condor circling overhead in a manner that suggested that it had been some time since it had last dined.


There is an assortment of old steam locomotives, cranes etc at Humberstone.  I tried to imagine what the place might have been like when it was a functioning production site.


Humberstone was not just a production site because people also lived there.  There were houses for the workers and even a pharmacy although I'm not sure how much fun it would have been to live in the desert next to a noisy and smelly nitrate extraction plant with potential for The Big Kaboom at any moment.   At least Lean Six Sigma hadn't been invented yet so there wouldn't have been the irritation of having to listen to Master Black Belts vapidly stating the obvious... 

Provisions seemed to have been made for the workers' entertainment as evidenced by the band stand.  However, I just couldn't figure out what the original function of the stairway to nowhere had been. 

The theatre is said to be haunted and you can see the ticket office to the left of the main building. 

The walk over to Santa Laura took about 20 minutes.  Unlike Humberstone, Santa Laura was purely a production site and was smaller as well.  I rather liked it and was happy to share it with the other three people who happened to be visiting at the same time.  The large building in these photos seems to be where most of the action took place.  I checked out underneath and found some encrustation with what presumably was nitrate residues.  

I looked around some of the buildings.  The roofs had completely rotted away but you don't need to worry too much about rain round here.  I liked the process diagram although I must confess that I didn't understand why they were making iodine.

In one of the other buildings there was machinery similar to what I'd already seen in Humberstone.

Then it was back to Iquique.  I managed to flag down a long distance bus after waiting for about quarter of an hour and was soon back in town.  As I suspected, the Isluga trip was not going ahead and the next day, after faxing some Australian visa stuff, I was en route to Arica.



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