A Chemical Laboratory Of The Gods
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE NITRATE DESERTS OF CHILE, IN WHICH THE ENGLISH HAVE INVESTED ONE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS-HOW NITRATE OF SODA IS MINED-A VISIT TO THE FIELDS-THE EXTENT OF THE DEPOSITS AND THE PECULIARITIES OF THE NITRATE TOWNS-A LOOK AT ASCOTAN, THE BORAX LAKE OF THE ANDES-SIX-HUNDRED MILES BY RAIL OVER SALTY PLAINS.
SAVING the silver-mining town of Oruro, I came down the mountains on the little narrow gauge which connects it with its seaport, Antfagasta, in Chile. The distance is 600 miles, or about as far as from New York to Cleveland. The track is only two feet six inches wide. It is, I believe, the longest one of this gauge in the world. The cars are of the American style and were built in Massachusetts. They are so small that you feel you are riding in toy cars, rather than on the through trunk line and only rail connection between two great countries.
Nevertheless the road is smooth and well laid. It has ties of Oregon pine and its stations are built of corrugated iron from Europe. The fares are exceedingly high. I paid $51 in silver for my ticket, and, in addition, $36 for extra baggage, as nothing whatever is allowed free. My meals at the dining stations cost me $I.50 each in silver, and when I stopped over night, as I did twice during the journey, the hotel charges were at the rate of $4 per day. The chief purpose of the road is to carry the silver and other metals to the seacoast. Our train had several cars loaded with lumps of silver ore, and we passed train loads of tin on our way to the Pacific.
The ride was through a desert. Shortly after leaving Oruro we entered the salt plains of Bolivia. These are of vast ex-tent, lining the road for hundreds of miles. In fact, there are but few places between Oruro and the sea where the soil is not more or less mixed with salt, and in some districts salt covers the land like a sheet of dirty white snow. Along some parts of the line the salt looks hard and icy, and one feels like jumping off the cars for a skate. At other places it lies in gullies, and at still others it only sprinkles the ground and a ragged growth of scrubby vegetation struggles up through it. The road runs for nearly the whole of its length through a desert valley, the salt-covered land reaching away on either side to the hills.
Here and there along the railroad are lakes on which seem to be floating cakes of ice. The cakes are not ice, however. They are borax. One of the lakes is the great borax lake of Ascotan, Bolivia, which has enough borax to supply all the laundries in the world. This lake, it is estimated, has more than 100,000 tons of pure borax ready to be shipped to the outside markets. I saw the lake on my left on the way to the coast. It is about six miles square. The borax (borax of lime) lies in great masses which, when taken out, look like the finest of pure white spun silk, wadded up or woven into lumps. It is not of so good a quality, I am told, as the borax of similar lakes in California. Still it is of considerable value, for the lake was recently sold to a German syndicate for £90,000 sterling.
Lake Ascotan, however, is as a drop in the ocean compared with the enormous value of the nitrate fields which I crossed as I neared the Pacific,—fields so valuable that they could almost pave the desert of Chile with gold. They have produced millions upon millions of tons of nitrate of soda; and it is estimated that more than 1,200,000 tons of nitrate will be shipped from them this year.
The value of the nitrate deposits is such that when they were in the hands of the Peruvians they made that nation rich, and now that they belong to Chile, as a result of her war with Peru, she gets more than half her revenue from the export duties which she collects from them. The working of the fields is in the hands of foreigners and more than $I00,000,000 of English capital is invested in the oficinas or factories through which the nitrate is taken from the earth and prepared for the foreign markets. For years Chile has been exporting from $20,000,000 to $30,000,000 worth of nitrate. She annually ships close upon I,000,000 tons to Europe, and not a small amount to the United States. We buy about $3,000,000 worth annually, using it for fertilizers and for making powder and high explosives. It is as a fertilizer that the chief demand for nitrate arises, the bulk of the product going to Germany, where it is used in growing the sugar beet.
There are nitrate fields near Antofagasta, but the best nitrate is found farther north, near Iquique, which I visited. This is the chief nitrate port of the world. During my stay I went out to the fields and visited the factories, spending some time at the oficina of the Agua Santa Company, which has a capital of $3,000,000 and which produces nitrate by the millions of pounds every month.
But before describing how nitrate is taken out of the earth, let us see where the fields are. In the first place the word " fields " is misleading. It suggests the idea of fences and visible boundaries. The nitrate fields are lost in the desert; their only boundaries are white posts at. the corners of the property. With this exception there are no marks whatsoever and no material at hand to make them. There are no stones lying about, and not enough waste wood to fence a city lot. There is not a blade of grass, and only now and then a scrubby tree. Outside the region all is bare gray sand, with here and there a glint of white, where the salt rock has caught the rays of the sun. There are, indeed, few more barren places in the world than the coast of this desert. The upper part of Chile is as bleak as the most arid regions of the Rocky Mountains. It is a mass of sand and rock extending from the shore almost to the top of the Andes. Bordering the coast there is a low range of foot-hills rising in places a mile or more above the sea. Beyond this a rolling valley runs from north to south, and on the other side of the valley are the foot-hills of the Andes.
It is along the western edge of the valley that the nitrate is found. In some places it is not more than 15 miles and in others as far as 90 miles from the sea, but the deposits all lie along the western edge of the valley, forming a strip of an average width of about a mile, which runs irregularly from north to south for a distance of more than 300 miles. In some places the de-posit is 4 miles wide, and in others it plays out altogether and crops out some distance farther on. In a few fields the nitrate rock lies on the top of the soil. In others it is found 30 or 40 feet below the surface, with a strata of salt rock on top. The nitrate itself is seldom found pure in nature, though much of the rock contains from 40 to 6o per cent of nitrate. The Antofagasta rock does not average more than 14 per cent and other fields vary with the nature of the deposit. It is getting the nitrate rock out of the earth and extracting the pure nitrate salts from it that constitutes the immense industry of the nitrate fields.
As to where the nitrate originates there are a number of theories. One is that the desert was once the bed of an inland sea and that the nitrate came from the decaying of the nitrogenous seaweed. Another theory is that the ammonia rising from the beds of guano on the islands off the coast was carried by the winds over the range of coastal hills and there condensed, settled and united with other chemicals in the soil to form the deposit. Still a third theory is that the electrical discharges of the Andes combined with the elements of the air to make nitrate acid. This acid, it is supposed, was carried down through the ages in the floods of the Andes and deposited on these beds in the form of nitrate of soda. None of these theories is entirely satisfactory, and as yet no one has absolutely solved the problem whence the nitrate comes.
We shall see better how nitrate is mined by a visit to the great pampa of Tamrugal. This pampa has 6o miles of oficinas and nitrate fields. A railroad has been built through it to carry the nitrate to the seacoast at Iquique, and on it have grown up vast factories, thousands of corrugated iron huts, in which the workmen employed in the business live, and other buildings, the homes of the well-educated Europeans who manage the proper-ties.
Leaving Iquique the railroad carries you up the hill and brings you right into the nitrate fields. It continues over a plain about 30 miles wide, with low hills rising up to the right and left. On the side of this plain nearest the sea the earth looks as if it had been ploughed by giants; it is covered with mammoth clods of all shapes and sizes. These are the nitrate fields which have been or are being worked. The rest of the land is bleak, bare sand. There is no vegetation and no sign of life of any kind. All is sand salt rock and amid the clods pieces of nitrate rock or, as it is here called, caliche. It is a soluble rock of different colours. In some places it is almost white and looks like rock salt. In others it is yellow, and in others still all shades of gray, lemon, violet, and green appear.
The strata of nitrate usually lies two feet or more under the earth, and there is often a salt rock or conglomerate strata above it. The method of getting it out is to bore a round hole, about a foot in diameter, through the upper crust and for a few inches into the soft earth below the nitrate rock. Into this hole a boy is let down. He scoops out a pocket for the blasting powder and arranges the fuse. He is then pulled out and the fuse is lit. With the explosion which follows, a yellow cloud of smoke and dust goes up into the air and the earth is broken for a radius of about thirty feet about the hole. The nitrate rock is now dug out with picks and crow-bars. It is broken into pieces of thirty pounds or less and loaded upon iron carts to be taken to the factories. Each cart will hold three tons of rock, the carts being hauled by three mules, the driver riding on one of the animals.
The factory to which the nitrate rock is taken usually stands in the midst of the field. It is a collection of buildings, with tall smoke-stacks rising above them, containing thousands of dollars' worth of costly machinery, vast tanks for boiling the nitrate rock, crushers like those of a smelter to break it to pieces, and settling vats in which the liquid containing the pure nitrate of soda is left until it has dropped its burden of valuable salt.
The caliche of the Agua Santa fields, as we saw it blasted out of the earth, contains only about 40 per cent of nitrate of soda. The nitrate of soda sent to the markets is 95 or 96 per cent pure, and the rock must be so treated that the impurities will be removed from it. This is done by boiling it, just so much and no more. The crushers first reduce it to pieces about two inches thick. It is then taken to the boiling tanks situated in a building erected upon a framework, so that the tanks are about 50 feet above the ground. Each tank is large enough to form a bath-tub for an elephant. They are 24 feet long, 9 feet wide, and 8 feet deep. In each there are coils of steam pipe by which the temperature of the fluid in the tank can be raised to any desired point. The caliche is carried in cars up an inclined railway and dumped into the tanks. Then water is admitted and allowed to flow from tank to tank in such a way as to act to the best advantage on the salts within. Nitrate of soda will remain in solution at a lower temperature than other salts. This fact and others of a scientific nature are taken advantage of, everything being done with the greatest care, and the result is that when the fluid is drawn off nearly all the pure nitrate of soda in the rock goes with it.
From the boiling tanks the nitrate of soda flows into other tanks which lie at a lower level in the open air. It now looks like pale maple molasses or thick lemon syrup. In a short time it begins to crystallize and the tank is soon half-filled with almost pure nitrate of soda. This is shovelled out into piles to dry. It is then bagged up in sacks of 300 pounds each and hauled on the railroad to the seacoast to be shipped off to the United States or to Europe.
After the salt has settled in the tanks the liquor still contains a large amount of nitrate. In this case it is conveyed back to the boiling tank, where it is loaded with more nitrate by being flowed over the fresh rock. But I shall not describe the technical details of the process, which is complicated in the extreme. They were explained to me by Mr. James T. Humberstone, the manager of the Agua Santa oficinas, who, of 'all the nitrate managers, is perhaps the best posted upon such matters. I will only say that the greatest care is taken to get every atom of nitrate out of the rock at the lowest possible cost, and that I was again and again surprised at the careful saving of every cent in pro-duct and labour throughout the works. It was indeed a lesson in economy, and when I referred to it Mr. Humberstone said: "The nitrate profits of to-day are a question of small things. Our product is so great that the difference of a cent in the cost of too pounds is an important item. It would, indeed, mean to us a saving of at least $1,200 a month."
Mr. Humberstone also showed me how the iodine of commerce is made from the nitrate liquor. It is a constituent part of the caliche, separate from the nitrate of soda, and it forms a valuable product of the nitrate fields. It is precipitated from the nitrate liquor by means of bisulphide of soda and is drawn off in the shape of a dirty black powder. The powder is washed and filtered and then put into iron retorts and heated. It soon turns to a vapour, which being conducted into pipes of fire-clay changes as it' condenses into crystals of a beautiful violet colour These crystals are packed and shipped to Europe, all going to a London firm which has the monopoly of the iodine trade of the world.
Connected with this company are the nitrate owners of Chile who have combined into a trust which dictates just how much each factory may make every year.
The price of nitrate lands has steadily risen for years and to-day the only properties to be had outside those owned by the 79 factories now working are from the Chilean government, which sells at auction only when it is anxious to raise money. At the last auction 2,000 acres were appraised at $3,500,000; they sold for more than their appraisement. The demand for nitrate of soda is limited, and while it is believed that the amount in sight will last the world at the present rate for 5o years and more, the Chilean government is anxious not to ruin the business by throwing more land just now upon the market.
Even after the land has been bought it costs a great deal to establish a nitrate factory. The Agua Santa establishment, for in-stance, has a capital of $3,000,000 in gold. Its factory alone cost nearly $700,000. It has buildings which cost $200,000, and its water supply cost $50, 000. It is now employing 800 hands, to whom it pays an average of $2,000 a day in wages, and the colonies sup-ported by its works numbers 3,000 souls. It owns the seaport of Caleta Buena and has a railroad from its nitrate fields to the sea. It has, all told, an enormous expenditure, but notwithstanding this it pays regular dividends of 10 per cent.
Such is one of the establishments which this salty rock has built up in the desert. It amazes one to see the other factories which lie in the fields here and there, some of which are almost as large. All along the nitrate railroad in this barren valley are towns of corrugated iron, with hotels and stores, and upon the seacoast, which is if anything more barren and desert-like than the nitrate fields, there are a number of thriving cities, whose very existence is founded upon nitrate of soda.
I wish I could take the reader for a walk through one of them — through this town of Iquique, for instance. It lies on the edge of the sea under the bare ragged hills which fringe the coast. There is not a blade of grass about it and not a drop of water, save that which comes to it in ships or flows through the iron pipe lines, 75 miles long, which have been laid down to bring the springs of Pica to it. Still Iquique is next to Valparaiso the most thriving seaport of Chile. It has 30,000 inhabitants and does an enormous trade. It has wide streets, telephones, and electric lights, and a street-car line, with Chilean girls as conduct-ors. It has a newspaper, a theatre, and as good an English club as one will find along the west coast of South America. It has fine stores and markets, and although it produces nothing but nitrate of soda and must get everything from the outer world, one can live as well in it and have as great a variety of interest as in any place in South America. Antofagasta, although not so large as Iquique, is equally well-favoured, as are also several other ports on the desert.