Sewell Mining Town, World Heritage Site (Chile)

Sewell Mining Town, World Heritage Site (Chile)

Mon, 10/15/2018 - 19:10
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Sewell, an outstanding example of a company town, is a deserted Chilean mining town located on the slopes of the Andes. It was built by the Braden Copper Co. to house workers at what was to become the world’s largest underground copper mine, El Teniente.

Sewell, Chile

Sewell is an abandoned Chilean mining town located on the slopes of the Andes at an altitude of between 2,000 and 2,250 m (6,500 and 7,400 ft). Too steep for roads, it was known as "The City of Stairs."

Sewell is a former company town, developed by Braden Copper Company for housing the workers and their families associated with the operations of El Teniente, the largest underground copper mine in the world.

At the town's peak in 1960, some 16,000 people lived here. After the Chilean government acquired a majority interest in the mine, the government company moved workers into the valley.

The government also built the Copper Highway to provide commuting access for them to the mine and related operations. Copper mining was nationalized in 1971.

While some buildings were demolished in the 1980's, others have now been renovated for contract workers and restored as part of preservation of this historic site.

The Chilean government designated Sewell as a National Monument in 1998. In 2006, Sewell was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.


El Teniente smelter and Sewell townsite, Chile, circa 1920 - via Wikimedia Commons
El Teniente smelter and Sewell townsite, Chile, circa 1920


Sewell Mining Town

Sewell Mining Town was built by the Braden Copper Company to house workers at what was to become the world’s largest underground copper mine, El Teniente. It was named after the company's first president, Barton Sewell.

During the Great Depression, the Braden Copper Company became a subsidiary of Kennecott Copper Company. In 1917 the foundry or smelter was moved from Sewell to Caletones, which soon also developed a town around it.

Originally male workers lived in shared housing called colectivos. Later family housing was added. Playgrounds, plazas, shops, and a movie theater later followed.

Sewell, located more than 2,200 m (7,200 ft) above sea level, clambers up the barren slopes of central Chile’s Los Andes Cordillera. Pedestrians walked up and down vertical staircases. There were unpaved horizontal streets and no cars. On the west facing side of Cerro Negro, a camp for foreign personnel developed.

By 1915 Sewell had a hospital, a fire department and a social club. The buildings and homes were made out of timber and painted bright colors. By 1918 the town housed more than 12,000 people. At its peak in 1960, it had more than 16,000 inhabitants.

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 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 1990's when a policy oriented toward the protection and conservation of the site was implemented.

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, drinking water and sewer systems
  • the assorted and diverse networks of pipes crossing the town, as well as the Rebolledo Bridge
  • 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.