Ghost Towns, Earthquakes and Fires


If you’ve been paying attention to Chile in the news, you’ve likely heard about the recent earthquakes and aftershocks in Iquique in March. I happened to be there the week before and saw the street I stayed on near the beach being evacuated on TV, a strange feeling indeed. The people in the northern towns headed for the hills with the calm and organization of people who have done this before with very few injuries. No major tsunamis were reported. A wall of a women’s prison fell down and over 300 escaped. It’s been said that many of them went to check on their families and then voluntarily returned to jail. Many are still free.

The rumor mill told me that Humberstone, a closed saltpeter mining town listed by UNESCO on the List of World Heritage in Danger had fallen flat to the ground. It seems that is not true, but that structurally the place is in a more precarious position than before. Before I headed north last month, I thought it might be interesting to check the place out. That’s an understatement. The place is astonishing. You can enter dozens of former houses divided into sections according to family type: single men, young couples or families with children. They were also separated according to “status”, with workers occupying the humble sites and the British owners and “professionals” [dentist, doctor, etc.] in the spacious structures with tall ceilings and a tennis court. It opened in the 1870’s and closed as recently as 1959. As you walk through the area, past the living quarters and tour through the former mining areas, tailings ponds and what looks to be a small jail you can imagine people moving through here. There are dozens of rooms showcasing the old tools, children’s simple iron toys, railroad and phone equipment developed over the years. It is much more than a museum; it was a real place where thousands of people lived, worked and died. I can’t think of a better name than ‘ghost town’. It feels like there is unseen activity going on undetected as the places and tools for doing so still stand, but nothing is in motion. It’s a strange juxtaposition.

When Humberstone first opened, there were no amenities and all the workers were payed in scrip that they could only use in the company store; no cash. Food was brought in from the south, as this is the driest desert area on earth. This essentially meant that no one was going anywhere. We could debate the proper use of the term slavery, but this hardly seems to represent a free and open agreement between boss and worker. Later on, around the turn of the century things changed for the better. Schools for the children were built as well as a theater, cinema and swimming pool and the employees were paid in cash that they could use anywhere if they wished. The fortune of this and other saltpeter mines in the area was cyclical in nature, depending on worldwide demand. Chemically known as potassium nitrate (KNO3), it was used as fertilizer, a food additive, a gunpowder component and more. The common belief that it was used in jails to curb inmates libido seems to be a myth. German scientists ultimately invented synthetic versions of KNO3 and the saltpeter mines in South America closed down around 1960 as demand dropped off. I refer you to these pictures, as I have very few. Camera battery issues.

In other news, a huge fire that started in a garbage pit area in the upper hills above the port city of Valparaíso where the city’s poorest live last week has left 12,500 or so people without homes. The death toll was quite small, but the injury rate much higher. It began as a small flame that was whipped up by the winds and garbage piles, then carried through trees to various hilltops or ‘cerros’ where homes are made of wood. Many of the precarious and informal encampments do not have any water networks to help control fires, and the area is hard to access due to narrow roads, so hundreds of people quite literally lined up and handed off buckets of water between on another to try to help control the fire. Chilean and Argentinean helicopters also dropped water from above, but for several days due to visibility issues even that tactic was of little use. Over 2,900 homes have been destroyed.The fire has been completely tamed now, and thousands upon thousands of volunteers have been collecting clothing, food, diapers and other essentials for donation while thousands of others are busy picking up remnants of lives and clearing destroyed buildings.

This isn’t the first fire to affect Valpo and much of it has to do with poverty as well as wooden construction, faulty infrastructure and high winds. Most articles I’ve read don’t talk much about that. They have some sound bites of politicians saying how they will rebuild as before, and I suspect this means they would permit people to cobble together ramshackle huts once again. President Michelle Bachelet seems determined to not let the poor encampments simply be reconstructed like they’ve been in the past without concern for safety and infrastructure. She left her first term in office immediately after the huge 2010 earthquake in the south and has resumed her second term (President Sebastian Piñera in between her terms, as they are not allowed consecutively) with a major earthquake in the north and the largest fire ever experienced here. It seems she is the kind of person with a true vision toward the future, and this won’t be just a band-aid situation. This article talks in greater detail about the poverty link and class lines surrounding this issue. When tourists visit the beautiful, historic port city named as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, they don’t see these parts of town, but they’re up there, precarious and temporary. And when they set on fire, the winds carry dust and fog to the capital city that lights the sky in red as the sun sets.


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