“Agua Santa” Saltpetre Works

“Agua Santa” Saltpetre Works. Source: unknown author. 1878, undated. Historical Heritage Collection. On deposit. Photographic album number 8559, ‘Industria del Salitre de Chile 1830-1930’, page 2. Sourced from museodeantofagasta.gob.cl

The workers’ camps of the nitrate industry in the Atacama Desert: the case of the Agua Santa saltpetre works

Author: Sergio González

The workers’ camps derived from industrial saltpetre operations in the Atacama Desert have their origins in the early 19th century, and gradually adapted over time as the industry expanded over the following hundred years.

Their pattern of development took the form of small camps scattered across the extensive territory of the Atacama Desert. These settlements represented a new, spontaneous regional structure which led to economic development in the area. A circumstance reflected in the creation of new infrastructure, such as expanded roadways and the construction of embarkation ports for the provinces of TarapacáTocopillaAntofagasta and Taltal.

Meanwhile, the fact that they were temporary settlements was linked to the saltpetre mining operations and the time it would take to deplete the seams of caliche rock in the vicinity of the camp. In this regard, the materials used to build the first housing drew on nearby organic resources, because the useful life of the settlements would end as soon as the mine ceased to operate.

Between 1870 and 1874 a saltpetre boom took place, making the camps more stable, increasing their size and improving the construction materials used for the housing. Wood and leather began to be replaced by zinc and zinc oxide.
The case study of the Agua Santa saltpetre works addresses a nitrate industrialisation model including the production plant, the caliche mining and transport systems, the organisation of the camps and their interconnection with the embarkation ports of inland supply regions.

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The presentation made at the International Congress on Worker Settlements and Factory Towns held in October 2018 may be found here