Sewell Mining Town

Sewell Mining Town was built by the Braden Copper company in 1905 to house workers at what was to become the world’s largest underground copper mine, El Teniente.

The town was founded in 1904 by the Braden Copper Company to extract copper from the El Teniente mine, and, in 1915, it was named after the company’s first president, Barton Sewell.

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.

Sewell’s origins go back to 1905, when the Chilean government authorized American mining engineer William Braden to exploit the copper mine.

In 1945 a major tragedy occurred when a fire in the entrance to the mine caused smoke to enter the galleries below causing the deaths of 355 workers.

This led to a government investigation and a national debate on safety legislation and the power wielded by foreign companies.

The company responded by developing a large department for industrial safety.

In an epic commercial endeavour, Braden built roads, a concentrator plant, camps and a railway that connected this remote place to the city of Rancagua 60 km 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 square metres by the time of its maximum development in 1968.

During the 15th – 17th centuries, raw materials were exported by the Spanish and then for two hundred years there was little activity.

In 1897 the then owner of the mining rights initiated a survey of the copper seams in the area. Soon, more than a hundred multicoloured buildings arose that housed the miners.

Hospitals, church, technical schools, social clubs, theaters, a bowling alley and a heated pool also went up. At its peak, Swell had 15,000 inhabitants.

The narrow-gauge railroad brought all necessary supplies to the town, while the ore went out in huge buckets over a tramway system that snaked down the hill to the smelter in Caletones.

In 1971 the mine was nationalised by the Allende government, and in 1977, after over seven decades of active life, and having supported the construction and exploitation of the largest underground mine in the world, the state-owned CODELCO (Corporación Nacional del Cobre de Chile) started moving families out of Sewell into the valley, and the demolition of buildings began.

The town was abandoned as a mining settlement in 1980, remaining in partial use as a dormitory for contractors’ personnel, and this led to the modification of some of the buildings and further demolition of others.

Demolition was finally halted at the end of the 1980s and in 1998 the town was declared a national monument. In 2006, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.