The most important industry in Chile is mining. In order to learn more about the mining industry in Chile and the history of mining in the country, I decided to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Sewell.
Sewell is a town of colorful buildings, located just a couple hours outside of Santiago in a restricted mining area up in the mountains. It was built at the site of the largest underground copper mine in the world, El Teniente. The town was founded in 1904 by the Braden Copper Co. of New York. In 1915, the town was named Sewell after the first president of the company. The peak population was 15,000, and it was depopulated in 1980 following the government’s nationalization in 1971.
The only way to get to Sewell is through one of three tour companies. I chose to go with VTS Enjoy Travel because they were the most accessible. Tours run on Saturdays and Sundays, beginning at 8:30am and returning to Santiago by 7:30pm. The cost at the time of writing was CLP $38,000. Lunch is included after the tour, at around 4:30pm. The bus makes a stop for snacks before getting to Sewell. To book a tour, it’s best to send an email. I couldn’t get the website reservation system working.
Overall, I thought the tour was amazing, but there were a few problems:
- The bus showed up on Chilean time – 20 minutes late.
- The tour was advertised in English and Spanish but the guide only spoke Spanish. There are signs posted in English around Sewell, but they obviously don’t give as much information as the guide does. He was a very good guide and I understood about half of his presentation but I was really expecting a bilingual guide.
- Lunch was served in a very nice country club on a beautiful golf course. That was the only nice thing about it. We ate rubbery, overcooked steaks with a powdered orange drink. Yum.
Back to the tour. After passing through plant security, we slowly drove around some curvy roads, climbing higher and higher into the mountains. We made a stop to view the Colón Crushing Plant, where copper from the El Teniente mine is refined to 99.99% copper.
20 minutes later, through a tunnel and more roads, we stopped to get a classic view of Sewell from a distance.
Finally, we arrived in Sewell. We started at the top of the town in a social club. The guide gave a long talk about the history of the town before giving us some free time to explore the building. There was a large conference hall on the top floor and an indoor swimming pool in the basement.
From there, we took a quick look at the hospital, which was one of the best in Chile in its day, and entered one of the residential buildings. Learning about life in Sewell was the most enjoyable part of the tour. A video was played where former residents talked about growing up and living in the town. Mining families lived in small apartments and shared bathroom facilities. We even walked past the last building built in Sewell. It’s much more modern than the other buildings and is used for temporary housing for a few workers.
There was a school, social club, movie theatre, bowling alley, several stores, a church, and many other facilities. All housing and utilities were provided by the company, and crime was nonexistent. The people in the video all had some funny stories to tell about life in Sewell, and they all said it was a wonderful place to live.
Sewell was called the “city of stairs” because that was the only way to get around. Chilean men loved women from Sewell because they said they had the best legs in Chile.
95% of the population of Sewell was Chilean, while the other 5% was North American. The groups were forbidden to socialize and only did so on special events and holidays.
We learned about the 1945 El Teniente Mine Disaster, when 355 miners died of smoke inhalation. It is the worst mining disaster in history. There is a large mural in one of the buildings dedicated to the miners and their families that suffered in the disaster.
Next, we visited the palitroque, or bowling alley. It was built in 1917 and was the first bowling alley in Chile. This was very interesting to see. There were only four lanes, with seating for spectators behind them. Scores were kept on large chalkboards. At the end of each lane, a boy would sit to retrieve balls and stack the pins. Bowling was very popular in Sewell and crowds would pour in to watch.
From there, we stopped at the church. It is a very simple and plain building with room for a lot of worshippers. It is colored in a very bright blue.
Our final stop was Plaza Morgan, the main square of Sewell. This is where all the important shops were, and also the Escuela Industrial, which now houses the Museum of the Great Copper Mine. The museum is excellent, with copper artifacts from all over the world, and items highlighting mining and life in Sewell.
The tour finished after lunch and I slept during the ride back to Santiago. It is a very interesting look into Chilean mining life and history.