Imagining Life in Sewell
By Amanda E. Coldeway
History is like literature; it forces you to imagine the perspectives of those living in a time long gone. No matter how much I try, I can never seem to get rid of myself, but walking through the streets, well stairs actually of Sewell, I became aware for a moment one of the thousands that passed their lives in this relic city.
El Teniente (the lieutenant) is the world’s largest subterranean copper mine in the world. The invasive process of blasting and digging, has carved the land into an arid alien world. It also shaped the lives of generations of families beset by the shift labor of the mines. In 1904, a North American company, Braden Copper, began construction on a mountain town to hold the mine’s many workers as well as a wealthy handful of North American and Chilean executives. In 1914, the camp earned the name Sewell after the company’s first president and from that point forward grew in splendor despite an inhospitable location deep within the Andes Mountains. Only accessible by a narrow gauge railroad, this “company town”, isolated its inhabitants like a luxury liner. Sewell held the finest gymnasium in all of Chile, not one but two bowling allies, year round heated swimming pools, and a social club replete with fine woods and chandeliers. Films from the United States came first to Sewell, before they premiered in Santiago. You could call it a diamond in the rough or even an oasis, but I couldn’t help but see it as more of a prison.
The pastel painted buildings are arranged on a conical face like a shoots and ladders board with stairs and passageways. Despite its unique situation astride a mountain, Sewell gave me a distinctly suburban sensation. The pre-planned matching architecture and geometric, even if vertical layout, cleanly juxtapose a scarred mountainside like some sort of post-modern novel made solid.
I stood beneath the carved beamed ceiling of the once exclusive social club where the Americans and a few Chilean administrators came to drink and rub elbows with one another. Like many company towns, alcohol was only permitted among the upper echelons of society, hence the emergence of “El Huachero” or the bootlegger. But from velvet curtains, I saw nothing but a gray slope and the dormitory building where miners slept eight to a room after ascending from artificial night.
During its glory years, the 1960s, Sewell boasted some 16,000 inhabitants but was largely abandoned during the ‘70s. People slowly moved into Rancagua, a midsized city further down the valley, and today as an UNESCO World Heritage Site it serves as an oversized museum. To me, the thought of living in Sewell is unpleasant at best, but perhaps this is a testament to my inability to escape my own head. I spoke with our tour guide who spent his boyhood among the stairs and rarefied mountain air and he wistfully recounted a strong community bound by common circumstance. From what I’ve read and picked up in museums, time in Sewell is looked back on with warm nostalgia. Above all though, I’m struck by our desire and ability to conquer the natural world and use it to our advantage. For better or worse, we humans will tame the wildest of landscapes for a buck.