Nestled on the precipitous slopes of the Chilean Andes, Sewell is an abandoned mining town renowned as "The City of Stairs." This unique settlement, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, bears witness to a rich history and industrial legacy.
Sewell: Mining Town
The City of Stairs
Nestled on the precipitous slopes of the Chilean Andes, at altitudes ranging from 2,000 to 2,250 m (6,500 to 7,400 ft), Sewell is an abandoned mining town renowned as "The City of Stairs." This unique settlement, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, bears witness to a rich history and industrial legacy.
Established by the Braden Copper Company, Sewell was designed as a company town to accommodate workers and their families associated with El Teniente, the world's largest underground copper mine. At its zenith in 1960, Sewell was home to a bustling community of 16,000 residents.
However, as the Chilean government acquired a majority interest in the mine, it initiated a process of relocating workers to the valley, facilitated by the creation of the Copper Highway. The nationalization of copper mining in 1971 marked a turning point in Sewell's history.
While some of its structures were demolished in the 1980s, today, several buildings have been meticulously restored for use by contract workers, preserving the town's historical legacy.
In recognition of its historical and architectural significance, the Chilean government declared Sewell a National Monument in 1998. Furthermore, in 2006, UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status upon this remarkable site.
The town's distinctive character lies in its vertical urban configuration, which earned it the moniker "City of Stairs." Here, steep inclines dictated the design, resulting in a pedestrian-centered town with an intricate system of staircases and pathways. The town's public spaces are interspersed among the buildings, creating a unique and intimate atmosphere.
Sewell is a compelling example of a company town, a phenomenon common in global resource extraction history. These towns, like Sewell, were established in remote locations to exploit valuable natural resources, serving as the nexus of local labor, external capital, and resource extraction.
The town's origins trace back to 1905 when American mining engineer William Braden was authorized by the Chilean government to exploit the copper mine. Braden's visionary efforts led to the construction of roads, a concentrator plant, camps, and a railway, connecting this remote site to Rancagua, 60 km (37 mi) away.
Sewell, along with El Teniente, remained under American ownership until 1971, when the copper industry was nationalized. By 1960, the Chilean government had become the major stockholder.
At its peak in 1968, the town accommodated 15,000 residents within a 175,000 square-meter (1,883,700 square-foot) area. Subsequently, the company determined that relocating workers to Rancagua was more efficient, leading to a gradual depopulation of Sewell.
However, this process was halted in the 1990s when conservation efforts were initiated to protect and preserve the site's historical and architectural heritage. Today, Sewell stands as a testament to Chile's mining history and the unique charm of a bygone era.
El Teniente smelter and Sewell townsite, Chile, circa 1920