Now uninhabited but well preserved, Sewell is a classic example of a company town built in a remote and hostile environment in order to work natural resources.
Often referred to as the City of the Stairs, Sewell clambers up the bare slopes of the Andes Mountains at 2,200 meters above sea level, in central Chile, close to the El Teniente mine. It was built in the early twentieth century by Braden Copper, a US company, to house workers for what was to become the world’s largest underground copper mine.
Because the terrain was too steep for wheeled vehicles, Sewell was built around a large central staircase rising from the railway station (also built, along with the railway, by Braden Copper). Along the staircase, formal squares of irregular shape, with ornamental trees and plants, served as the main public spaces. The buildings lining the streets are timber, often painted in vivid green, yellow, red and blue, but have an austerity and functionality that gives them an air of modernism.
Initially called El Molino, the town started life as a small camp, albeit with its own hydroelectric plant, cable cars for transporting the copper and a smelter. In 1915, it was renamed after William Braden’s partner, Barton Sewell, and it began to expand rapidly, boosted by increased demand for copper as a result of World War I. During this period, the town was equipped with a hospital, a cinema, its Sports Palace gym and a swimming pool.
Education, healthcare and housing were free in Sewell, but there was strong segregation of Americans and Chileans, and of married and single people. Consumption of alcohol was forbidden.
At its peak in the 1960s, Sewell had some 15,000 inhabitants. However, it was largely abandoned in the 1970s, after the nationalization of the country’s copper industry and the construction of a highway to the city of Rancagua, which made it easier for the mine’s employees to live there. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 2006.
Key features of the town include its industrial installations, designed to take advantage of the incline for the mineral grinding process; buildings that combine houses on the upper floors with businesses or services on the ground floor; and its electricity, drinking water and sewer systems.