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.
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.
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?