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Sewell, Chile: An abandoned mining town known as “The City of Stairs“ as there were no roads

Jack Beckett
Often called “The City of Stairs“. Author: Rodolfo Pace  CC BY 2.0
Often called “The City of Stairs“. Author: Rodolfo Pace  CC BY 2.0

Situated at 2,000 m high in the Andes, 60 km to the east of Rancagua, layered upwards with a system of staircases and bridges.

The town of Sewell was once an isolated copper mine but is now an uninhabited historical site and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Built into the mountainside. Photo Credit

Built into the mountainside. Author: Rubenmoreno84  CC BY SA 3.0

 

The town was founded in 1906 by the Braden Copper Company to house workers at what was to become the world’s largest underground copper mine, El Teniente.

The town was named after the company’s first president, Barton Sewell. Its more than 2,400 kilometers of tunnels yielded more than 400,000 metric tons of refined copper per year.

It was built on the slope of the Andes with no flat roads, just a giant central staircase rising from the railway station (called the Escalera Central).

All supplies had to be brought into the city via a narrow gauge railroad. Photo Credit

All supplies had to be brought into the city via a narrow gauge railroad. Author: Rodolfo Pace  CC BY 2.0

 

A unique mountain community. Photo Credit

A unique mountain community. Author: Rodolfo Pace  CC BY 2.0

 

By the 1950s Chile had become the second largest copper producer in the world. Photo Credit

By the 1950s Chile had become the second largest copper producer in the world. Author: Jmvgpartner  CC BY SA3.0

 

By the early 1960s it had a population of 16,000, men, women and children of many nationalities. Photo Credit

By the early 1960s, it had a population of 16,000, men, women and children of many nationalities. Author: Marcelo Páez Bermúdez     CC BY 2.0

By the mid-1960s, Sewell was in its heyday, home to approximately 15,000 people. But by the end of that decade things began to change.

In 1967, the Kennecott Copper Company lost ownership of the site as the Chilean government gained a 51% stake in the company.

Four years later, the copper industry was nationalized and the company became a division of the Copper Corporation of Chile.

It has been recognised as a great cultural and architectural work. Photo Credit

It has been recognized as a great cultural and architectural work. Author: Lorna-Lorna   CC BY SA3.0

 

The buildings lining the streets are made of timber, often painted in vivid green, yellow, red and blue. Photo Credit

The buildings lining the streets are made of timber, often painted in vivid green, yellow, red and blue. Author: Francesco Bandarin  CC BY SA3.0

Today the mine itself still operates but the town was abandoned in the 1970s and some of the buildings were demolished. Demolition was halted at the end of the 1980s and the remaining buildings were remodeled to house contractors.

The mine now produces 3% of the worlds' copper. Photo Credit

The mine now produces 3% of the worlds’ copper. Author: Miguel De Pablo  CC BY SA3.0

 

Many structures, such as the hospital, the Industrial School (now home to the museum), the theater, a four-lane bowling alley (Chile’s first, dating from 1917), and the Club Social, remain intact.

All these were connected by a warren of concrete steps and walkways that gave the town its nickname, “Ciudad de las Escaleras” (City of Staircases).

Sewell is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Photo Credit

Sewell is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Author: Tae Sandoval Murgan  CC BY2.0

In 1998 the town was declared a national monument by the Chilean Government.