In the old Ghost mining town of Humberstone, in the Atacama Desert of Northern Chile, stands a huge wooden building, its wooden walls and roofing slowly crumbling and returning to the sands of the Desert, time and the elements have taken their toll.
But this old building was once the cultural Center of the self sustaining community that became known as The Humberstone Mining Town Theatre. This theatre bought a semblance of Culture to the workers and families back in the 1800’s. I stood outside and imagined this grand old Lady back in her heyday, the sheer height told its story of Cultural dignity, its wooden walls held secrets of long forgotten Plays and Presentations, a time when the outside world became alive and real to those who toiled underground in the mines, and the Families whose daily lives were directed by the harsh Desert Sun and the whispering shifting sands.
The main entrance is at the side of the theatre, standing at the entrance one sees the whole interior open up, to the right is sets of wooden seats, seats that do not rise up when vacated as in modern theaters, further to the right is the Stage, not large by any means, stood a solitary Podium behind which hung background drapes of Velvet Red, now fading with time. Standing at the door and looking to the left, are further rows of seats, all these seats are below stage level so viewers were looking up at the stage, and behind these seats were five small alcoves at eye level with the stage, presumably for those in a higher financial bracket. Above this Alcove was the Balcony with seating that would accommodate about 100 people. The theatre overall in my estimation would have accommodated approximately 500 to 600 Patrons. Running the length of the theatre between the aisles was a red carpet, now faded and showing the passing of time, worn thin from the Ghosts of memory’s past. The old theatre, even in its original days would bear no resemblance to those majestic theater’s that flourished throughout Europe back in the 1800’s, yet this theatre held a secret, a secret that also is fading into the Desert Sands of The Atacama Desert.
The afternoon was drawing late, the fly by tourists had already left the theatre as I approached and climbed the steps to the stage, standing behind the Podium
I looked out over the theatre, taking in the seats below my eyes, and drifting to the rear and up into the Balcony of the theatre, there was a silence that became shattered with laughter and applause, as I let my imagination turn back in time, who were the Patrons applauding and who was making the Patrons laugh that bought joy to their everyday harsh lives. Plays and Presentations became alive as I let my mind wander back through a foggy haze into the 1800’s. Through the laughter and applause the sound of music broke my reverie, I looked down at my feet and realized I was probably standing in the same spot as once The Great Enrico Caruso stood.
Yes one of the greatest Tenors the world has ever known shared his beautiful voice and music in this old theatre hidden in the Atacama Desert. Caruso was born in 1873 and died in 1921, somewhere before 1903 he toured South America including Chile, and one can only think that at that time, the corporation and administrators saw fit to engage Caruso to perform at the Humberstone theatre. I closed my eyes and lent my ears to wild imagination, as I heard that great Tenor’s voice erupt and echo through the walls of that old wooden theatre. That brief moment in time passed as I floated in mind back to my reality of time in the present. I left the theatre with a feeling of experiencing a gift of glance into the past. As I walked away back out into the sunlight I knew one thing for sure, those old wooden walls of this ancient theatre will always resonate to the music and Voice of one of the greatest Tenors the world has ever known, Enrico Caruso.
In a few more hundred years this old wooden theatre will return to dust, its history just a memory for those who lived its times, were part of its existence, a part of a memory when the beauty of life, fun, laughter and music gave enjoyment and hope to those who lived in those days.
One day the old theatre will crumble into dust, when it does, I would like to think that the music and voice of Enrico Caruso, will echo forever more, across the vast sands of The Atacama Desert.
I had closed the story on my Humberstone Mining Town adventure, thinking I had exhausted any potential posts on the subject. Looking back through my photographs of this time, I see I neglected a couple of subjects within the township that are worth sharing. I find that when I write on a subject that there always appears another story within the topic. In this case it is the Humberstone School. This School was built in the 1800’s as part of the overall self contained Community Township, all facilities being provided in the Town including the School.
I walked the classrooms and the only hall dividing the classrooms. It was a strange experience, a long hallway dividing the rooms, desks still arranged as though the class was away for the day, school desks from an era that epitomized the basics of provisions for education. Stark wooden walls with high windows, wooden floors that many young feet had scampered across in races to their desks. The old desks with a single ink bottle holder well and two little recesses for pens, beneath a little nook for slates and other study material.
The desks alone told the story of those times, desks that little hands had used as an engraving board, messages, pictures and childhood graffiti decorated the lids, possibly demonstrating a lack of boredom, desks arranged to face the front of the classroom where a solitary teacher sat, and behind, a large chalkboard depicting possibly the last lesson taught in that old school. I wandered down the corridor, if I remember rightly, there were five classrooms on either side, all similar, stark bare rooms with desks, a chalkboard and teachers desk, the only difference I could perceive was the style and sizes of the desks, I assumed this was a reflection of the ages and classes held in these rooms.
Humberstone Township was a working community for many Miners in those days, Miners who would have bought with them children of varying ages, the School back in those days, would have been seen as a major part of the community, a very real part of integrating the community into the promotion of education for the Miners children.
Normally my imagination goes wild with imagery when I walk through places such as this old School house, in this case I felt a numbness, a silent numbness, a feeling of despondency with tinges of Hope and daydreams from little minds as to where imagination can take them.
On one lonely wall hung a solitary sepia picture titled Humberstone Primary School, looking at that picture was a complete lesson in history, hopes and dreams etched on small faces echoed back to me from an old 1800’s classroom wall in the dry harsh and arid Atacama Desert of North Chile.
I leave my pictures to tell the story.
The Main entrance to The Humberstone School
A Solitary Sepia picture, a stark view into the harsh Schooling days of Humberstone School in the 1800’sThe Childrens Playground, Shelter from the searing heat of the Atacama Desert, a Basketball hoop to the left.
The Corridor dividing the Classrooms, wooden framework with students desks to be seen on ether side.
Many a small mind was shaped behind these desks, imagery would like to think their lives went on to become fruitful, maybe Doctors or Scientists whose future helped to further Medicine and ScienceA Teachers desk and Chalkboard. The ingredients to lead to a future of Dreams and Ambitions. The empty desks of Vacant Ghosts of Memories I love this picture, a Bus etched on the school desk lid, probably depicting the dreams of escape, dreams of hopes and Ambitions of a young mind Who cannot remember the Childhood romances, a heart enshrined with two names scratched on a desk top showing their love. I hope RG and S went on to follow their Dreams I trust you have enjoyed this tour into the History of the old Humberstone School of the 1800’s. An era of early Education, and one which I don’t think I would have survived as a Teacher.
Continuing our adventures in Chile, I would like to share this memorable excursion to the coastal port of San Antonio, a distance of 113.9 kilometres from Santiago that by road is one hour and twenty one minutes. However a little background before I continue with my story.
Our adventures to Chile are always planned in a limited compact way, probably a bit different from normal tourists itinerary planning. I am fortunate that my wife being Chilean has a great knowledge of her country. To set the ball rolling, we select the Capital city as our Base camp, we book accommodation for the complete duration of our stay. From there the day’s dawning welcomes us to another adventure, knowing every day is an adventure in Chile, our second visit in 2015, saw us spend five days in the amazing world down south in the Patagonian region, and from there we returned to our base in Santiago and then moved on for a number of days to the beautiful city of Valparaiso, always returning to our Base camp, to recuperate and prepare for further explorations. In this year 2017 we made arrangements for a week in Iquique, staying there for five days we branched out on further day excursions, such as Humberstone, not as an organized tourist venture, but purely freelancing by car due to the fact that our Niece was the Tour guide and driver. Tour guides are great, they sell you the whole story, show you what they know tourists want to see, that is the package deal in most countries.
I found one secret in travelling in foreign countries, even back in my Vietnam days and New Guinea experience, always listen to the locals, they will tell you story’s and direct you to places that don’t appear as tourist attractions, their secrets will lead you directly into their culture and lifestyle. Such a place was San Antonio.
With Ana’s knowledge and research she found a day’s excursion to San Antonio, but an excursion with a difference, instead of by car in one hour, we were travelling by train for three hours. An unforgettable experience, the train was a reconditioned wooden steam train from the early 1920’s, Saloon Cars and Dining Car, Conductors in each carriage, we chose the Dining Car, tables fitted to the floor, Chairs that could be moved, Gaslight fittings overhead ( converted to electricity for modern necessity ), Brass overhead luggage racks, Gold tasseled drapes that curved around the wooden windows, I loved these windows, you raised the wooden window high and waited for a wooden stopper to drop, securing the window. This whole scenario made me feel like I was sitting in a train in a Western movie scene.
The train rattled and rolled through the outlying towns of Santiago, houses changing in style from rural rich Casa’s, to the poorer style of the rural fringe dwellers. Soon we were viewing the vast panorama of fruit and vegetable countryside that fed the local markets and Santiago. Twisting and turning, slow speed in some areas, vast drops to one side before we passed through one of the number of old stone tunnels leading into San Antonio. Food and drink was provided on the journey from the Galley attached to the Dining Car, sandwiches and coffee and cold drinks for modern convenience, entertainment was provided by a roving Guitar player, who seemed to stir the emotions of the Chilean passengers. I was enjoying the games in my imagination of what the train ride and food would have been in the old elegant days, Crockery and Glasses of the finest, food that would proudly grace the tables of any modern restaurant.
We started this journey at 9.30 in the morning and returned to Santiago station at 9.30 at night. This is the outline of that adventure, below in my pictures I will share with you the beautiful scenes from San Antonio, a noted port harbor city in Chile that doesn’t rate highly on the Tourist list of visits, but to those with a discerning eye, and those who heed the words of the locals, it is an experience you won’t forget.
Modern well maintained Trains departing and arriving at Santiago StationOur Train from a bygone era awaits, Conductors on hand to help passengers aboard, with the small footstool on the platform as an aid The Wooden Windows and the Gold tasseled curtains evoke an emotion of elegance in times of long ago A Dining Saloon that could be considered fit for Royalty or Dignitaries Chairs that can be moved for comfort, still in original condition.The Saloon CarOn board Entertainment, a roving Guitar player whose infectious nature, soon had the entire Dining Car singing in accord.The Promenade along the San Antonio Coastline I love this picture, it was great to see the Pelicans waiting around the shoreline for remnants of the days fishing, but more captivating was to see the two Sea lions resting among them. Sea Lions known as Sea Wolves or Loberia in Spanish, hope I got that right. A Seafood Lovers delight to wander through the market here. One of my favourite Seafoods After looking at all that Seafood it was time to tease the tastebuds, I am not sure what happened with my camera at this stage, it seems to have converted to Sepia somehow Restaurant entertainment, great Chilean music which one of our party, A Mapuchee Indian Girl was successful in getting me to dance to. Darth Vader in a threatening mode until I pointed out I was recording our encounter, thankfully we departed friends. The Vampire of San Antonio. Now in all my travels I love the artistry of the street entertainers, I have photographed quite a number, but this artist put me on high alert immediately, for a start he was seated on a wall well away from the normal tourist thoroughfare, I wandered into this part of the street out of my curiosity, I offered 1000 Pesos to take his picture, that price is the usual price depending on their artistry. I took the picture and thanked him, as I was walking away from this quite empty tourist part of the street, I heard a voice in plain English asking if I would like my picture taken with the Vampire. My sixth sense came to the fore, intuition from my Vietnam days became alert. I politely declined and at that moment Ana came around the corner, she took the following picture, the Gentleman offering to take my picture had disappeared. I hope I was wrong in my assumption because these artists put a lot of effort into their presentation. I couldn’t help recalling cases of strangers offering to take your picture then disappearing with your camera. Much like a Vampire with a flapping of wings
Not a Modern Station and not a Modern Train, the whistle blows, steam is up as we bid farewell to San Antonio, a great little secret along the coast of Chile.Cheers Emu
This is my last post on Humberstone Mining Town, I think I have pretty well exhausted the story on this Topic, commendations to those readers who have taken the time to visit, enjoy and comment. Sometimes my enthusiasm get’s a little carried away, and I try to share too much and too fast. The following picture are of the outdoor display of engineering equipment used back in the late 1800’s in the pursuit of that underground Gold at the time, Sodium Nitrate. In my next story I will take you on an adventure to a seaside town, 100 kilometres north of Santiago, a town called San Antonio, however an adventure with a difference, we take an old early 1900’s train, complete with embroidered gold tasseled curtains, wooden windows, a Dining Car and Saloon Car, something you may have seen in an old Western movie or maybe an Agatha Christie story, this experience is really a step back in time.
Here in San Antonio you will enjoy the markets, stalls and culinary delights of a beautiful captivating town, I will share with you my meeting with Darth Vader, and also, a true encounter with a real live Vampire, a Vampire that stalks the streets of San Antonio, his appearance and disappearances are at whim, fortunately my camera functioned at the right moment.
This old mining town of Humberstone, now fading into history, is still maintained as a living memory of the past. For a number of hours I walked the streets of this old town, the dry sand beneath my feet, and the searing heat making slow progress on my tour. My next venture was to visit the inside of the houses, the buildings are left to the ravages of time and nature, they cannot be refurbished back to their original condition. For posterity and tourism, some of the interior of the houses have been displayed with household appliances and furniture from the days of their inception, Crockery, Bedding and Furniture, which by today’s standards appear as primitive, but considering the era of 1870’s, these would have been modern amenities and facilities.
The first thing that I noticed was the different standards in housing, one for the Administration and the others for the Workers, even so, both standards were primitive, albeit a bit more enhanced for the Administration residents.
I wandered through the houses, fading into history, I visited each room. I actually felt as though I was walking into the past of someones history, as though I was intruding on their memories, it was alive with Ghosts from a bygone era, stark wooden chairs in a Lounge room, cast iron beds, a Baby’s cradle in a corner with a small pair of booties strategically placed beneath. A mud fire stove in some houses, old cooking utensils hanging above, a small Kitchen with a vase of fruit contrasting with the sad interior, a semblance of family pride. Showers of the basics of plumbing of the time, toilets the same. A laundry area that led to the outside, where in the high walled small enclosure was a Dove coop and beneath, a Dog kennel, the whole area outside was smaller than a modern room. Overwhelming emotions came to the fore as I wandered through the houses, faded Sepia pictures in bubble glass frames depicting the lives of the inhabitants, faded pictures of those long gone, gazing at the pictures, I wondered on where their lives led them too from these primitive days in this old mining town. In the Administrators houses, the facilities were much the same, except some had better quality of furniture, and in one house a piano and radio. I spent quite some time in these rooms reflecting on the lives and times of the inhabitants, in all sincerity the experience was a lesson in life, our survival in overcoming adversity. May the Ghosts of Humberstone attain eternal Peace. I leave you with my pictures from that time that will demonstrate or bring my words to life. A time now only 8 weeks old since I walked the streets of the Ghost town of Humberstone Chile.
The old mining town of Humberstone established in 1872, was one of many mining communities in the Northern regions of Chile, all extracting Salt Petre to fuel the worlds demands . Sadly there was a downside to this Chilean mining venture, that ended up being recorded in the history books, as an atrocity that would blacken the pages of Chilean history.
At the turn of the twentieth century, sodium nitrate was the most lucrative of all Chile’s exports. The nitrate mines, owned by Chilean and British capitalists, were notorious for treacherous working conditions and labor exploitation. Mobilized by anarchist groups and the nascent labor unions, in early December 1907 thousands of nitrate workers carrying the flags of Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina descended from the hills to the northern provincial capital of Iquique to demand better conditions. So infamous was the misery of these miners that they were joined in solidarity by 12,000 laborers from all trades, bringing nearly all commerce and industry in northern Chile to a halt. An estimated 5,000 workers occupied Iquique’s Santa Maria School for over a week while Chile’s President Pedro Montt – who’d come to power through the support of the labor movement – initially attempted to facilitate talks between workers and the mine owners. But as the numbers of strikers continued to swell, President Montt ordered General Roberto Silva-Renard to end the strike by any means necessary.
At 2:30pm on December 21st, Silva-Renard issued a warning to the leaders of the workers’ committee to disperse within an hour. The leaders refused, and stood firm atop the school’s roof. Exactly one hour later, Silva-Renard ordered his soldiers to aim their guns at the rooftop. All the strike leaders fell dead with the first volley. The amassed workers and their families desperately fled in all directions in a futile attempt to escape as they were shot down mercilessly with machine guns. The soldiers then stormed the school grounds, firing frenziedly into the classrooms with no regard for the women and children screaming in vain for mercy. At nightfall, they hauled and dumped the thousands of bodies into a clandestine mass grave. The survivors were ordered at sabre point to get back to work, whereupon they were subjected to a decade-long reign of terror before the labour movement could begin to recover.
In his report to the government, Silva-Renard – “the Butcher of Iquique” – blamed the strikers for his heavy-handed actions, and was in turn promoted to Brigadier General as a reward for his defense of democracy, law and order. In 1914 he was blinded and rendered invalid in an assassination attempt by the brother of one of his thousands of victims, and was buried with full honours when he died seven years later.
In August 2007, as the centenary of the massacre approached, Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet ordered a team of archaeologists and forensic scientists to excavate the site that was for so long rumored to be the mass grave of the Santa Maria School Massacre victims. Nearly 2,500 bodies were exhumed. As Chile owned up to the truth of its shameful past, public exhibitions were mounted, a monument to the dead was erected, a national day of mourning was decreed – and General Silva-Renard’s name was quietly removed from the artillery regiment that had been posthumously denominated in his honor.
I trust that this overview of Sodium Nitrate Mining and these pictures, will serve to illustrate the harsh conditions of the 1800’s into the mid 1900’s, of the lives and times of those fortunate enough to find employment, and endure the hardships all in the cause of family survival.