Sewell, the Legacy of the Largest Copper Mining Industry

Sewell, an Abandoned City of the Former Copper Mining Industry

Sewell is a historic and uninhabited mining town located in the Andes Mountains of Chile.

Perched at an elevation of over 6,562 feet above sea level, Sewell is in the Cachapoal and Colchagua provinces.

In the 20th century, the world’s largest copper deposit, boasting over 6,000 km of underground tunnels, was mined.

Recognized by UNESCO for copper mining, Sewell features cleverly designed buildings built into the steep mountains.

Codelco, a state-owned entity, currently operates the El Teniente mine in Sewell, maintaining its status as the world’s largest mining company with over 3,000 km of underground galleries.

At its peak in 1960, the town housed around 16,000 inhabitants.

However, due to changes in mining practices and the subsequent decline in population, Sewell transformed into a ghost town, with only a handful of residents remaining.

Despite its decline, Sewell stands as a well-preserved relic, offering a glimpse into Chile’s mining heritage challenges.

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Architecture in Sewell

One of the most striking aspects of Sewell is its architectural marvels.

Built on the steep slopes of the Andes, the town is a showcase of innovative urban planning and construction.

Moreover, the buildings, staircases, and streets of Sewell are ingeniously adapted to the challenging mountainous terrain, reflecting the ingenuity of the engineers and architects who designed this mining town.

The town’s architectural ensemble includes a mix of residential areas, schools, hospitals, and recreational spaces.

Additionally, distinctive red-brick buildings harmonize with the natural surroundings, creating a picturesque scene in the Andean peaks.

The Uninhabited Legacy of Sewell

Sewell now stands uninhabited due to shifts in the mining industry, changes in ownership, and economic factors.

Furthermore, the town’s depopulation can be attributed to technological advancements that rendered its underground mining operations less competitive.

In 1971, during Salvador Allende’s presidency, the Chilean government nationalized the mining industry, including Sewell, influencing the town’s dynamics.

As a result, as mining practices evolved and economic considerations shifted, the need for a large resident population diminished, leading to the gradual relocation of workers and their families.

Moreover, challenges such as the high-altitude location, maintenance expenses, and environmental concerns contributed to the decision to depopulate the city.

Today, only the downtown area remains, having undergone extensive dismantling and demolition in the early 1980s.

Nevertheless, about 50 original buildings persist and are undergoing restoration.

Additionally, the Museum of the Great Copper Mining showcases the historical, social, and economic importance of copper mining from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The museum features exhibitions with photographs, documents, maps, geological materials, and instruments.

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The History of the Copper Mining Industry

The Braden Copper Company established the town in 1906 as a support center for copper extraction from the El Teniente mine, naming it after the company’s inaugural president, Barton Sewell.

During the Great Depression, Kennecott Copper Company absorbed the Braden Copper Company, relocating the foundry from Sewell to Caletones in 1917.

Originally, male workers resided in collective housing, known as colectivos, at Sewell, which later expanded to include family housing.

Over time, the town developed amenities such as playgrounds, plazas, shops, and a movie theater.

Vertical staircases replaced unpaved streets in Sewell, adapting to harsh winter conditions for pedestrian navigation.

A camp for foreign personnel developed on the west-facing side of Cerro Negro.

El Teniente mine’s ore traveled down via narrow gauge railway, connecting Sewell to Rancagua.

By 1915, Sewell had established a hospital, fire department, and social club, with buildings and homes constructed from timber and adorned with vibrant colors like yellow, red, and blue.

As the “City of Staircases,” Sewell’s unique topography required a narrow gauge railroad for supplies.

Unfortunately, the town faced significant threats, including avalanches, earthquakes, and explosions from mining operations.

Tragically, on August 8, 1944, an avalanche claimed the lives of 102 people, highlighting the ever-present dangers.

In June 1945, a carbon monoxide poisoning incident in the El Teniente mine resulted in 355 fatalities, prompting stringent safety regulations.