I could spend a lifetime listening to stories and learning about the past from my Chilean family. Yesterday on a walk, Jorge began telling me about where he was born and raised. When he told me that he lived on the side of a mountain where it snowed 10 months out of the year, I thought he was joking (like always). I thought I was a tough cookie, being from Wisconsin and all. Until I saw the pictures, I really didn’t believe him, but he was certainly telling the truth! While we watched a documentary about his one-of-a-kind hometown, he pointed out some family friends, his old school-teachers, and the place where he and my Chilean host mom first met. I had never seen or heard of anything like it before.

Sewell was a unique mining camp nestled in the heart of the Andes mountains. At it’s peak, it was a community of 16,000 people living in a seemingly self-sustaining utopia. In place of roads and cars, there were staircases. In place of houses, there were stacks of apartment communities. And instead of skyscrapers full of businessmen, there was the world’s largest underground mine bustling with workers night and day.

The town was founded in 1904 when an American mining engineer named William Braden began extracting copper and constructing the mine. Known as El Teniente (the lieutenant), the mine flourished. Its success brought more workers, who in turn brought wives and children and life to the camp town. It flourished in the 60’s, and—although you had to climb stairs to get anywhere—Sewell had everything a person could need. There was a school, church, movie theater, soccer field, tennis court, pool, dance hall, fire department, hospital, fabric stores, and grocery stores. And, what more? The tenants didn’t pay for electricity and water.

Needless to say, it was a mining community, and in exchange for free utilities, the workers risked their lives every day entering the mine. Jorge followed in his dad’s footsteps working in the mine for many many years. While they worked under the threat of explosions, their families took the risk of living amongst the possibility of avalanches and earthquakes, which sometimes wiped out entire sections of the fragile city. They were strong people, building an even stronger community under such variable conditions in order to live a prosperous life.

In 1971, when ownership of the mine was turned over to the state, they started moving workers out of the community for lack of sufficient funds. Within 5 years, all that remained open were the buildings needed to keep the mine running. Today, it’s a monumental establishment, where people travel only to visit the abandoned buildings and reminisce.

I would love to visit. It’s nothing but a ghost town today, but I am captivated by the way that they lived, almost untouched. Such a unique and rare community that once existed…a mock Machu Pichu, a place that our children’s children might study someday.