PHOTO: The grand staircase in Sewell, Chile. (photo via Flickr/rodoluca88)
High in the central Chilean Andes sits the town of Sewell. Today, Sewell is uninhabited—and yet it remains one of the most talked about and visited sites in Chile.
Just half a century ago it was a bustling mining town with all the modern-day luxuries including a cinema, theater and bowling alley.
Sewell got its start about 112 years ago when American William Braden arrived in Chile and made his way over treacherous terrain to a little-known copper mine known as El Teniente. Upon discovering that the mine was, in fact, rich in copper (it has since turned out to be the world’s largest copper producer and exporter), he and a group of partners bought the rights and established the Braden Copper Co.
After the Chilean government granted the group permission to develop the mine, plans to house the mine’s workers took hold.
Because of its precarious position perched on the mountainside, Sewell couldn’t be built like other cities. In fact, traditional building plans were thrown out the window as the town’s design was dictated by the hazards of everyday life, including avalanches, landslides and rock falls.
Instead, the town was built around a central staircase coming up from the train station. Sidewalks were practically non-existent, and while there were unpaved roads, there were no cars and inhabitants moved about on a network of vertical staircases. No surprise then that Sewell earned itself the moniker “City of Staircases.” In fact, so unique is Sewell’s architecture that it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2006.
At its peak, Sewell had close to 15,000 inhabitants. To house the many workers and their families, the town built schools, a hospital, a church, banks and even a court. Sewell’s social hierarchy was as marked as the town’s layout, with foreigners at the top of the pecking order. One’s social level—foreigner (including U.S. experts), mine employee or laborer—determined how and where you lived. Foreigners, for instance, had their own homes and lived very comfortably. Mine employees lived in suites with a private bath, while the lower-ranked laborers shared bathrooms and showers.
And as in other highly segregated communities, each group had its own social club, gym, pool, cinema and schools. One bonus to having U.S. experts on hand was that they were privy to the finest quality goods and technology meaning everyone benefited when Sewell would premier the latest movie and television shows.
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By the 1970s, the town was nearly empty thanks in part to the company’s decision that it was more efficient to move its miners and employees to nearby Rancagua. The town was partially demolished in the years that followed, but in the 1990s it was decided that the site should be protected and preserved.
While there is no bad time to visit this brightly painted town, winter and early spring afford the best contrast, as the colorful blues, yellows and reds pop in comparison to the snowy mountains. Those interested in a guided tour should visit on a weekend or holiday; tours are not given at other times of the week because they interfere with traffic and the day-to-day operations of El Teniente.