Once bustling neighbourhood now a ‘perfect’ ghost town in middle of the desert

A once bustling centre tightly linked to its industry has turned into a ghost town.

Humberstone is an abandoned town located in the inhospitable Atacama Desert in Chile.

The life and death of this northern Chilean settlement were both linked to the extraction of saltpetre.

Between the 1880s to 1930s, this material dug out of caliche was used to make fertiliser – and was much sought after by countries around the world who were seeing their population grow at a rapid pace.

As this deserted area was particularly rich in saltpetre, towns like Humberstone popped up over the late 19th century to answer the demand.

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Founded in 1872, Humberstone was initially called La Palma but was eventually renamed after James Humberstone, a British chemical engineer who emigrated to South America three years later.

Mr Humberstone made his fortune from saltpetre, which at the time had been dubbed “white gold” due to how much it was sought after.

Speaking about the importance of the material between the 19th and 20th century, Julio Pinto, a historian at the University of Santiago in Chile, previously told the BBC: “During the golden age of saltpetre, from 1880 to 1930, it was monumentally important.

“It accounted for between 60 percent and 80 percent of Chilean exports and between 40 percent and 60 percent of Chile’s fiscal revenue. Chile literally lived off one product: saltpetre.”

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In its heyday, Humberstone counted around 3,500 residents and featured several areas that would have bustled with activity when people were inhabiting it.

The huge demand for saltpetre, which is still used today as an oxidiser for fireworks and rockets as well as in pharmacology, came to a sudden halt after World War I broke out.

After Britain enforced a blockade of exports of saltpetre to Germany, the country came up with synthetic substitutes used to create fertiliser.

As the desire for saltpetre fell, the town founded on its trade was doomed to be left behind by its residents, who one after the other moved out in search of new jobs.

The town has been left abandoned for decades, but has been stunningly preserved by the dry air of the desert.

The company store where workers bought their food and provisions is still standing, as is a bandstand and a brightly-coloured theatre built to provide entertainment to families and employees.

The town also presents remains of a hotel and a swimming pool and has heavy machinery once used to extract saltpetre scattered around.

In 2005, UNESCO declared the refineries in Humberstone and the nearby Santa Laura town a World Heritage Site, standing as a testament to the importance of saltpetre mining in Chile.

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