Once a bustling mining and progressive town in the Atacama Desert, a few hundred kilometres from Chile’s borders with Peru and Bolivia, Humberstone has now become a disturbingly silent ghost town with no workers or residents on its streets. How did this happen?
It was named after James Humberstone, a British chemical engineer who emigrated to South America in 1875. He made his fortune from saltpetre, which was dug out of caliche, the nitrate-rich crust of the desert, and used to make fertilizer.
For a while in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, almost all the saltpetre in the world came from the Atacama Desert. It was known as “white gold” and was in huge demand in the industrialising countries of Europe, which needed fertilizer to help grow food for their rapidly expanding populations.
Everything in Humberstone revolved around saltpetre mining. Founded in 1872, the city was originally known as La Palma and in its heyday was home to around 3,500 people. Digging for saltpetre was a gruelling business. The workers were outside all day under a blistering sun, with little water or shade.
In 1878, Bolivia increased the taxes that one important Anglo-Chilean company paid on its nitrate exports.
A generation later, when World War One broke out, the British blockaded exports of saltpetre to Germany and that prompted the Germans to look for alternatives, by inventing synthetic substitutes that could be used to make fertilizer. Suddenly, no-one needed Chilean nitrate anymore and the industry collapsed.
In addition, when the great depression of 1929 paralysed the industry Chile’s nitrate industry definitively collapsed, leaving behind the current ghost town. By the 1960s, locals abandoned both Humberstone and Santa Laura, leaving most of their items in place such as clothing, pictures, and suitcases. It is currently the best preserved along with Santa Laura which represents the 200 saltpetre works in the past and has since been named as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 and titled as the Chilean National Monument.
Ever since then, Humberstone became a ghost town and it seems that also today, citizens in nearby towns refuse to set foot in the area because they believe it is full of the ghosts.
Several stories from visitors claimed that they have seen shadow people and apparitions of former residents and some even reported hearing screams, voices and footsteps walking towards them. Visitors also recounted the sounds of children’s laughter as they play in its streets. The reasons are different.
First, probably due to the nearby La Noria Cemetery.
Just like Humberstone, La Noria was a progressive mining town that met the same fate as Humberstone due to economic problems. The cemetery houses the remains of the slaves who worked under horrible conditions but also includes children who died from accidents and/or poor living conditions. With a huge number of deaths, the people built a makeshift cemetery for the bodies near the town. The cemetery at La Noria had been heavily vandalised with the bones of the deceased exposed to the harsh elements of the desert and, it seems, there are open graves where you can see the skeletons inside while some bones of the dead outside of the coffins are also visible around the vicinity.
Because of the open coffins and visible skeletons, there is a rumour that the dead from the Cemetery of La Noria would rise and walk around both Humberstone and La Noria. As a results, the most impressionable locals of neighbouring towns are so afraid that they refuse to step into La Noria and its surrounding areas. Some of them even attempt to stop tourists or visitors from exploring the area, because eyewitness had also reported that the dead would rise from their graves when the sun descends and walk towards Humberstone.
As a logical explanation, people speculate that it was actually grave robbers in search for treasure were the ones who dug up the coffins even if, the spookier theory is, of course, that the opened coffins were the work of zombies up and about at night.
The second reason of Humberstone ghosts is linked to Santa Maria Massacre. Because of harsh working conditions, workers of the saltpetre mines from different towns in Chile had organised a strike. Workers negotiated with their bosses who, instead, told them to head back to work as a precondition. President Pedro Montt initially acted as a mediator during the conflict. However, he decided that the 5000 strikers that occupying the Santa Maria school and the 2000 workers that took over the Manuel Mont plaza posed a threat to public security and health and he wanted them to be removed with any means possible. Authorities feared what the strikers might do even though they might not be of any threat. So, on December 21, 1907, General Roberto Silva Renard gave the order to open fire on the 5000 workers inside the school. An estimate by a historian states that there were 1000-2000 people were killed or wounded during the massacre. This tragic event, of course, also contributed to the ghost stories of visitors or tourists that went to explore the town.
Another influenced story to explain the supposed ghosts would be Humberstone’s old theatre, that was once a grand theatre donned with red drapes and filled with laughter and spectators and now only a dilapidated stage where many sightings of shadows moving around it are seen.
The old schoolhouse is one of the most unsettling yet nostalgic places in Humberstone. Many visitors have claimed to encounter children that roam the hallways and curiously peering from corners before disappearing and It was also reported that the voices of children playing can be heard through the hallways.
Despite its ghost residents, Humberstone is still undeniably quaint and holds a deep culture behind its existence. Starting from being a progressive town to a hotbed of poverty and corruption, it’s understandable why locals don’t want to set foot there, as a sad reminder of what South American has suffered.
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