Sewell Mining Town
Just as the rivers flow down from the Andes, so does the wealth of Chile. For here, high in the mountainous border of the country, are the natural resources which have made Chile one of the most stable economies in South America.
Over the years, the mining techniques have evolved and the exact locations moved. Left on the mountains are the husks of the communities that once dug up the earth to keep the nation prosperous. The most famous of these in Chile is the old mining town of Sewell.
Built into the mountainside, layered upwards with a system of staircases and bridges, Sewell was home to more than 15,000 people at its peak. At the time, it was the largest underground copper mine in the world. Today the mine itself still operates but the town was abandoned in the 1970s when the residences were moved downhill to give workers better facilities.
Mining in Chile
The mine has life still. Trucks thunder along the dirt roads, dirtied men emerge from the dark caverns underground, and smoke wisps up from the factory-like buildings in the high terrain. About three per cent of the world’s copper is produced here.
Sewell is a ghost town, though. It’s been left as it once was… minus the people. There’s an old theatre that is empty but for the memories of the nights that the workers would spend here to find relief from the loneliness of their lives. Dormitory buildings have corridors of doors that are never opened or closed and hide an emptiness behind them. The wide and steep staircases between the buildings lead to nowhere.
It’s strange to stand in the middle of silence in the shell of a community that would once have been so noisy and busy. The buildings are all painted bright and varied colours, which give the town a vibrance in stark contrast to the rocky mountain it is built on. It’s the only thing that is vibrant today, though.
The history of Sewell
Investors from the United States began to take ownership of the mine and built Sewell in the early 1990s. The equipment and conditions for the men who lived here had the benefit of modernity but it was a remote and hostile environment. More than 2000 kilometres above sea level, the cold winds have a harshness as they swirl around the buildings, carrying dirt and dust with them, they would’ve chilled the inhabitants. The sun beats down but it brings no warmth. From this altitude the views are striking but the homes and families of the workers are nowhere to be seen. They would’ve felt trapped up here in the Andes.
Both the Chilean government and UNESCO have deemed Sewell to be a town of historical importance. It is “an outstanding example of the company towns that were born in many remote parts of the world from the fusion of local labour and resources from an industrialized nation, to mine and process high-value natural resources.” It is also a tribute to the men who braved such harsh conditions. And a memorial to the 355 workers who died during a fire in the mine in 1945.
The town is situated on land that is still owned by the mining company and can only be visited with an authorised guide. Driving along the tracks to reach it, you pass operational parts of the business. The living conditions may be a bit better for the workers these days. In some ways, though, not much has changed. It’s a hard life high up in the mines but there are always people willing to do it. This is not just about history.