Coal Magnates of Southern Chile

Chile’s economy, very similar to our home country Australia, relies strongly on the export of resources and agricultural products. If you drive south along the coast from Concepción you soon pass through a region which used to produce incredible fortunes from coal mining. The early owners of these mining licenses were not shy in flaunting their wealth.

Remains of the now closed coal mine in Lota

Remains of the now closed coal mine in Lota

The Chilean coal industry was first formed in Coronel by one Jorge Rojas Miranda who, from all accounts, fought hard to establish it against imports from England. Coal was an important energy resource, required to fuel the local cooper smelters in the North of Chile.

Frederico Schwager & Coronel

We initially stumbled upon the great importance of the coal industry around Concepción by chance, when we noticed the recurring German name “Schwager” in Coronel: streets, public buildings, a soccer stadium, a church, another large building, and finally an entire suburb are named after this man.

So I looked him up on the internet: Frederico Schwager [Frederick William II Schwager in German] was born in Valdivia in 1824 and died (on a sea voyage to England, off the coast of Brazil) in 1892. He extracted coal from several mines in and around Coronel, which kept producing into the 1980s until they were forced to close down after a serious mining accident. To this day a company called “Schwager Energy” occupies the grand looking (from the outside) former Schwager headquarters on a hill near the port. Since closure of the coal mines the port seems to rely heavily on wood chip production.

Because I’m always curious I went to this headquarters’ building, expecting maybe a museum or another public institution. Instead the gate guard invited me to go inside and visit the company’s building. There’s not much left of any former glory inside with the main central room converted, sometime in the 70s, into a very basic function room. The chief engineer was excited to have a visitor and took me into a messy archive room, full of long forgotten ring folders and discarded office equipment. He rummaged through dusty papers to extract several documents as proof of the historic significance of the mine. Apparently there is still a valuable coal seam, which runs from the main shaft diagonally out under the ocean, and there are some old plans to revive the mining. But coal imported from Colombia is currently much cheaper.

We went further and visited the suburb of Schwager, on the foreshore south of Coronel, but there’s not much to see. Some historical ruins, but it appeared to us that most was badly damaged or totally destroyed by the tsunami which followed the 2010 earthquake. Apparently there’s no money to rebuild, although I noticed a sign advertising a small government grant to restore private houses. The historical museum was only a shell, as were several rows of houses in town.

The Cousiño family & Lota

The fortunes of the next town down the coast, Lota, are also strongly connected with coal mining. Since the mine’s closure in the 1990s the city’s population has been declining, and it is now considered one of the poorest areas in Chile. Yet there are many signs of a flourishing past, the most popular being the tourist attraction, ‘Parque de Lota‘, once the sprawling property of Matías Cousiño and his successors. The Cousiños are another family who made their fortune with mining in general and coal from Lota in particular.

Lota's fishing fleet and damaged coal loading pier

Lota’s fishing fleet and damaged coal loading pier, as seen from Parque de Lota

The park was initially the garden surrounding their local residence. Over time it was extended, incorporating many exotic plant species, European inspired statues (made from cast iron), a grotto, a Japanese pavilion, and other decorative features (the largest being the now collapsed ‘Puente Isidora’). The park’s overall design is inspired by French gardens, and its substantial extension, under Luis Cousiño Squella between 1862 and 1872, was overseen by the English landscape architect Bartlet. In 2009 the park was listed as a national historical monument of Chile.

The family wealth must have been incredible for the times, as the Cousiños also owned residences in Valparaiso and Santiago. Their former mansion in Santiago had the first generator in South America (bought from the family friend, Thomas Edison), a lift, and was well appointed with the finest imported furniture, rugs, and china. It is now a museum in state hands.

The former mines of Cousiño and Schwager were merged into one company in 1947 and, in 1973, nationalised by the socialist government. The shady Park of Lota is open to the public for nominal charge and is worth it – for the magnificent vistas alone.

Further reading (all links open new browser tab):
Historia de Coronel (in Spanish) , very informative
Wikipedia/Spanish on Federico Schwager
Wikipedia/Spanish on Matías Cousiño (follow links at bottom)
Santiago: Palacio Cousiño – grand living for a grand family in English

Do you know the background of any of these families?
There are still very rich industrial magnates in Chile – do you know of any examples?


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21 Responses

  1. F Huntsman says:

    I found your site after reading Clandestine in Chile, nonfiction, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His book discusses the mines, politics and economics of the area. Suggest it to anyone who may visit Chile.

  2. Anthony Smith says:

    I have visited the beach where the original mine was built which goes out under the sea, now a stone ruin.

    I remember dad saying that the sand was black, it is.

    • Juergen says:

      You often find black sand on beaches in regions with volcanic activity, eg. Canary Islands, Indonesia, and many places in Central and South America. The sand is often very coarse and hot in summer. In Coronel it looks even more striking as the locals bring along really colourful umbrellas.
      Colourful umbrellas on Coronel beach

  3. Anthony Smith says:

    My grand father John Smith of Bolton Lancashire England was the general manager of schwager in the mid 1920’s to 1939. He lies buried in Concepcion cemetery. The family emigrated to Chile in 1924 and lived in a bungalow now demolished on a hill side over looking the sea.

    • Juergen says:

      Now you are making me curious how you found this blog post! We would have liked to research this topic more in-depth and provide more detail, but with limited internet on the road…

      • Anthony Smith says:

        Hi Juergen

        I was just browsing schwager on google . I’m in the UK my father returned with his mother and brother after the death of my grand father. His sister however, remained in Chile and married. I have my grand fathers walking stick presented to him in 1934 by his staff at Schwager and his personal mining equipment. please resend link i forgot to activate

        • Juergen says:

          Anthony, if you mean the link to ‘subscribe to follow-up comments’ – that’s software feature and automated. I confess I have no idea as to how I could resend it manually.

  4. I’ve traveled all around Chile but never knew about these coal towns. Interesting.

    • Juergen says:

      That’s the amazing thing about travel: always something new to learn. We wouldn’t have stopped in the region except that a) when we reached Coronel it was late and we needed a place to stop, b) our guidebook mention in one sentence the Park in Lota…

  5. Shelley says:

    Great research into a fascinating history. It’s amazing just how wealthy some of these coal magnates became. My husband used to work for one of these coal families in Canada.

  6. Linda Bibb says:

    Thank you for sharing this part of Chile’s mining history. Most visitors never have the curiosity you did. That it led to a tour by the chief engineer was truly a blessing.

    I’m really liking the photos of the architecture and park.

    • Juergen says:

      But whenever I wrote “curiosity” into my CV most people said you can’t do that, as the majority don’t consider it a favourable character trade. In my mind it’s the first step towards the will to learn something new. :D

  7. Interesting story, thanks. Coal, and other resources, have played such a huge part in so many places that we travel.

    • Juergen says:

      And I bet resources still play an important role in many places we visit. Chile’s economy, like Australia’s for example, is very reliant on resource exports.

  8. noel says:

    Fascinating story and history and those homes and gardens look like amazing places to visit, stunning

    • Juergen says:

      There’s much more to their stories, that’s why I included links. I wanted to keep this brief and interesting enough for all readers…

  9. Donna Janke says:

    Interesting story. I’m impressed with the way you tracked down the story of coal magnate history in southern Chile, all starting with curiosity over a recurring name. I love exploring and learning about history like this in any place I go to.

  10. How wonderful the chief engineer at Schwager allowed you to tour the property and learn more about this fascinating industry. The Cousiños family sounds as though they left a lasting legacy.

    • Juergen says:

      I was very surprised too! The engineer even wanted to give me some historical plans as gifts – but we don’t have space to carry such treasures (nor right now a home to take them back to)…

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