Memories of Living in Sewell, Chile

Sewell, Chile This famous photograph of Sewell, Chile, was taken (I think) sometime in the 1960's when the mining camp, owned and operated by Braden Copper Company, was at its largest, with about 16,000 inhabitants. (Larger view)

Built on the slopes of Cerro Negro, in the Chilean Andes not too far from Santiago, Sewell was a tough place to live. Accessible only by narrow-gauge railroad completed in 1911, the camp was closed off and inhospitable due to weather and isolation.

It must have been difficult to live and work there, yet for the children who grew up in that City of Staircases on the mountain, there seems to be a common bond of affection and good memories of Sewell.

You'll read some of them here, beginning with family memories. You'll note some discrepancies within them, as we each remember things a bit differently.

The Taylor family, Jim and Billie and daughters Karen, Bonnie (that's me) and Sondra, arrived in Sewell one cold snowy day in July 1946. We traveled up the mountain in a seemingly endless, cold trip from Rancagua in an autocarril, which was something like a mini-bus on train wheels. As I remember, the windows were flaps, either leather or isinglass which made the interior murky and did not keep out the cold wind. Years later, I found out the autocarril was reserved for personnel paid in dollars. Other personnel and all goods were transported by regular train, a very slow process up that steep mountain. Now, more politically aware, I cringe at the distinctions made in favor of foreign employees, but then, it was just the way things were.

Once off the train or the autocarril, everyone and everything got to its destination by foot. There were staircases, thousands of steps! leading up, and paths off the staircases to other parts of camp, to businesses and residential areas.

Foreigners and Chilean personnel above a certain professional level lived in single family homes called Campamento Americano, built on the sunny west slope of Cerro Negro. Our house was #49 and our telephone number was 124. Single bacheors lived in barracks-type apartments with not much more than the basics. Everybody else lived in long, three or four story buildings called camarotes.

The children of foreign personnel went to the American School, a correspondence Calvert School system, which went up only to fifth or sixth grade. After than, children were sent off the hill to boarding schools in Santiago, the capital of Chile. Boys went to the Grange or St. George. Girls went to Santiago College, Dunalastair or others. Other children went to a Chilean school which continued through the upper grades.

Bonnie Taylor As children, our lives were focused on Campamento Americano. Milk and groceries were ordered by phone and delivered to the back door, so there was no need for my mother to shop. We were allowed to go to the movies and the library once a week, and that excursion into the central part of town was always a treat. For recreation, we played in the American School playground, one of the few level spots in town, or in the indoor pool at the El Teniente Club, a social, recreational gathering place. In spite of this picture of me scowling, I did have a lot of friends.

My sister Jamie was born in Sewell. She, my mother and my father were all in the hospital at the same time. My father had a knee operation, and while the rest of the family was in the hospital, my sisters and I stayed with friends, Vic and Nina Barreno, who lived in the house above ours.

The maid I remember most clearly is Chela, the cook, who reigned over the kitchen with a damp dishcloth and woe betide any little girl who tracked mud or snow through her kitchen. We also had a series of housemaids/nannies. Chela would have hot sopaipillas with chancaca syrup waiting for us when we got home from school during the winter.

The picture below is blurred, since I enlarged it from the photo above, but I've identified our house, the American School and the hospital. Every school day, we slid down the railings to school, climbed back up the stairs for lunch, then down again and back up after school.

Campamento Americano in Sewell, Chile

There were earthquakes. We lived with them, as well as the heavy snows that each winter would threaten Sewell with another devastating avalanche like the one that destroyed the part of camp built on the east slope of Cerro Negro. I recall one particular winter when the trains could not get up past Caletones, and so supplies were brought in by the ore buckets. If memory serves, an injured man was "air-lifted" out that way.

A year or so before we arrived in Sewell, there had been a severe explosion in the mine, with much loss of life. A girl I used to play with told me that there hadn't been enough room in the cemetery to bury all the bodies, so some had been buried in the cellars of our houses. Since our house had a storage area with an opening into the slope of the hill, that's where "our" bodies were. I was impressionable and believed her. Such nightmares! For years my sisters and I were afraid to go past that area.

My sister Karen Taylor Holmngren Kaseberg's memories.
My sister Jamie Taylor Barrett's memories.
Connie Sunde's memories.
Assorted Photos.

For much more about Sewell, and Chile, please see Sewell, also known as El Teniente, Chile.

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