Sewell Mining Town was built by the Braden Copper company in 1905 to house workers at what was to become the world’s largest underground copper mine, El Teniente. It is an outstanding example of the company towns that were born in many remote parts of the world to mine and process high value natural resources.
Sewell Mining Town, located more than 2,200 m (7,200 ft) above sea level, clambers up the barren slopes of central Chile’s Los Andes Cordillera above the world’s largest underground copper mine, El Teniente.
The first copper company town in Chile (the main producer of this metal in the world), the now-uninhabited Sewell is an outstanding example of the global phenomenon of company towns in which settlements were established in remote parts of the world to extract and process natural resources, in this case, high value copper.
These company towns were typically created through a fusion of local labor with external capital and resources. Sewell Mining Town is particularly notable for its contribution to the global spread of large-scale mining technology.
Sewell’s origins go back to 1905, when the Chilean government authorized American mining engineer William Braden to exploit the copper mine. In an epic commercial endeavor, Braden built roads, a concentrator plant, camps and a railway that connected this remote place to the city of Rancagua 60 km (37 mi) away.
El Teniente and the town of Sewell were owned by American companies until 1971, when the copper industry was nationalized and became the property of the State, which, by the end of 1960, had already become the major stockholder.
Sewell had gradually expanded to accommodate 15,000 people in 175,000 sq m (1,883,700 sq ft) by the time of its maximum development in 1968. The town then slowly lost population when the company resolved that it was more efficient to move its workers to Rancagua. A process of demolition ended in the 1990s when a policy oriented toward the protection and conservation of the site was implemented.
Sewell is a company town of great originality. It is known as the Ciudad de las Escaleras (City of Stairs) or Ciudad Derramada en el Cerro (City Spread Down the Hill) because of its urban configuration on the steep Andean slopes. These dramatic inclines gave rise to an organic design characterized by an exclusively pedestrian interior circulation system of stairs and paths, with public places built on small open areas between the buildings.
The construction of buildings and industrial facilities shows great creativity and quality in the use of wood and steel. Their architectural expression is marked by austerity, functionality and the imprint of modernism.
The most outstanding attributes of the property are the industrial installations, which take advantage of the hillside incline for the mineral grinding process; the buildings that combine houses on the upper floors with business or services in the ground floor; the service buildings, public spaces and pedestrian circulation system; the electric infrastructure and drinking water and sewer systems; the assorted and diverse networks of pipes crossing the town, as well as the Rebolledo Bridge; and the urban design and the ensemble’s location in the stark Andean landscape.
Among the industrial installations, the Concentrator (still in working order) and the energy infrastructure stand out, as well as the Punta de Rieles (Rails’ End) sector at the highest point on the property. In Sewell was forged a special culture – a combination of Chilean and American customs – which survives with its former residents and their descendants.