("Volcanic Islands" etc. page 87.) I believe the superficial gypseous deposit is widely extended: I received specimens of it from Pisagua, forty miles north of Iquique, and likewise from Arica, where it coats a layer of pure salt. M. d'Orbigny found at Cobija a bed of clay, lying above a mass of upraised recent shells, which was saturated with sulphate of soda, and included thin layers of fibrous gypsum. ("Voyage Geolog." etc. page 95.) These widely extended, superficial, beds of salt and gypsum, appear to me an interesting geological phenomenon, which could be presented only under a very dry climate.
The plain or basin, on the borders of which the famous bed of nitrate of soda lies, is situated at the distance of about thirty miles from the sea, being separated from it by the saliferous district just described. It stands at a height of 3,300 feet; its surface is level, and some leagues in width; it extends forty miles northward, and has a total length (as I was informed by Mr. Belford Wilson, the Consul-General at Lima) of 420 miles. In a well near the works, thirty-six yards in depth, sand, earth, and a little gravel were found: in another well, near Almonte, fifty yards deep, the whole consisted, according to Mr. Blake, of clay, including a layer of sand two feet thick, which rested on fine gravel, and this on coarse gravel, with large rounded fragments of rock. (See an admirable paper "Geological and Miscellaneous Notices of Tarapaca" in "Silliman's American Journal" volume 44 page 1.) In many parts of this now utterly desert plain, rushes and large prostrate trees in a hardened state, apparently Mimosas, are found buried, at a depth from three to six feet; according to Mr. Blake, they have all fallen to the south-west. The bed of nitrate of soda is said to extend for forty to fifty leagues along the western margin of the plain, but is not found in its central parts: it is from two to three feet in thickness, and is so hard that it is generally blasted with gunpowder; it slopes gently upwards from the edge of the plain to between ten and thirty feet above its level. It rests on sand in which, it is said, vegetable remains and broken shells have been found; shells have also been found, according to Mr. Blake, both on and in the nitrate of soda. It is covered by a superficial mass of sand, containing nodules of common salt, and, as I was assured by a miner, much soft gypseous matter, precisely like that in the superficial crust already described: certainly this crust, with its characteristic concretions of anhydrite, comes close down to the edge of the plain.
The nitrate of soda varies in purity in different parts, and often contains nodules of common salt. According to Mr. Blake, the proportion of nitrate of soda varies from 20 to 75 per cent. An analysis by Mr. A. Hayes, of an average specimen, gave:--
Nitrate of Soda.... 64.98 Sulphate of Soda.... 3.00 Chloride of Soda... 28.69 Iodic Salts......... 0.63 Shells and Marl..... 2.60 99.90
The "mother-water" at some of the refineries is very rich in iodic salts, and is supposed to contain much muriate of lime. ("Literary Gazette" 1841 page 475.) In an unrefined specimen brought home by myself, Mr. T. Reeks has ascertained that the muriate of lime is very abundant. With respect to the origin of this saline mass, from the manner in which the gently inclined, compact bed follows for so many miles the sinuous margin of the plain, there can be no doubt that it was deposited from a sheet of water: from the fragments of embedded shells, from the abundant iodic salts, from the superficial saliferous crust occurring at a higher level and being probably of marine origin, and from the plain resembling in form those of Chile and that of Uspallata, there can be little doubt that this sheet of water was, at least originally, connected with the sea. (From an official document, shown me by Mr. Belford Wilson, it appears that the first export of nitrate of soda to Europe was in July 1830, on French account, in a British ship:--
In year, the entire export was in Quintals. 1830............................