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article imageReview: Lota Coal Mine — Life and death under the sea Special

By Igor I. Solar     Nov 28, 2013 in Travel
Lota - Relics of the coal-mining era have become a work alternative for Lota former coal miners. A journey mixing pride, nostalgia, and social criticism takes visitors through tunnels hundreds of meters below the sea, showing the hard life of coal miners.
The city of Lota, located 550 kilometers south of Santiago de Chile, was founded in 1662 by Spanish Governor Angel Peredo with the name of “Santa Maria de Guadalupe”. The small town was continuously subjected to the siege of the aboriginal Mapuche who resisted the advance of the Spaniards beyond the Biobío River.
View of the small port of Lota. The mines are located hundreds of meters under the bottom of the sea...
View of the small port of Lota. The mines are located hundreds of meters under the bottom of the sea. Some of the inhabitants of Lota work now as tour guides, fishermen, and coal collectors.
The importance of the Lota region was mainly based on its rich coal deposits. It is said that in 1840 an indigenous leader from the tribe of “Cabullancas” sold to José Alemparte, a political and military leader, the land containing the coal mines. The price allegedly paid was a negligible amount of money plus five bottles of wine. Alemparte sold the land to the "Cousiño-Garland Company" which operated the mine between 1857 and 1970 when the Government of Chile acquired the mine and the company became ENACAR (National Coal Company). Under the military government of Augusto Pinochet the mines were privatized again, but in 1997, when the coal from the mines of Colombia entered the market and Lota coal became unprofitable, the mine was definitively closed plunging the residents of Lota into poverty.
Panoramic view of the city of Lota. About 50 000 people live in Lota. When coal mining started in th...
Panoramic view of the city of Lota. About 50,000 people live in Lota. When coal mining started in the middle of the XIX Century only about 3,000 people lived in Lota; 600 of them worked in the mine,
Currently, the refined gardens of the Cousiño family, former owners of the mine, the tunnels where the miners worked, and replicas of their modest homes, have been transformed into places of interest for visitors from around the world who can admire the affluence of the wealthy industrialists and mine owners, and learn about the appalling working conditions of the miners, similar to slavery, and the poverty of the worker’s families.
Former coal miner Sergio Constanzo, the tour guide during my visit to the mine, tells:
Token used by the Lota coal mining company to pay the miners. These were only valid at the Company S...
Token used by the Lota coal mining company to pay the miners. These were only valid at the Company Store. This token was worth half a kilo of meat.
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In the nineteenth century, kids as young as eight-year-old were working in the mine. Their tasks were mostly opening and closing the gates in the tunnels to direct air flow and allow passage of trucks with coal. At age thirteen, the company officially hired them to work as adults. Workers were paid with tokens which were only good at the store owned by the company. Thus, miners worked for tokens which were returned to the company in exchange for food.
In the early to mid-nineteenth century, before boots, helmets and gloves became available, miners worked almost naked. Hygienic conditions were horrendous; darkness, humidity and the constant threat posed by landslides and explosions due to gas released in the tunnels were a regular part of the job. Miners who survived the harsh working conditions, diseases and firedamp (coal-mine gas) explosions, used to work until age 80 or older.
Entrance to the mine  Chiflón del Diablo  (The Devil s Blast) in Lota. The mine is a National Histo...
Entrance to the mine "Chiflón del Diablo" (The Devil's Blast) in Lota. The mine is a National Historic Monument of Chile.
Visitors to the mine enter the small elevator down to the tunnels. The guides make sure visitors  we...
Visitors to the mine enter the small elevator down to the tunnels. The guides make sure visitors, wearing helmets and battery-operated head lights, are aware of the safety regulations inside the mine.
The company gave mine workers the use of a home consisting of a six-square-meter room where families lived in overcrowded conditions. Several homes were built together, attached in long blocks. The bathroom, kitchen and ovens to make bread were for community use.
Historic building of the Chivilingo Hydroelectric plant. The plant started operations in 1897 to pro...
Historic building of the Chivilingo Hydroelectric plant. The plant started operations in 1897 to provide electricity to the Lota mine. One hundred years later, in 1997, the mine closed operations. This building is a National Historic Monument of Chile.
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In 1897 the company established a hydroelectric plant in the Chivilingo River, 14 kilometers south of Lota. The Chivilingo Plant, designed by the firm of Thomas Alba Edison, was the first hydroelectric power station in Chile and the second in South America. Electricity greatly improved the operation of the mine supplying power for the underground carts transporting coal and miners; the operation of pumps that extracted water from the bottom of the mine; the operation of a tram traveling on the streets of Lota, and even providing lighting in the miners’ homes.
When the coal mine closed in 1997, Lota became one of the poorest towns in Chile. Since then a process of restructuring the social and cultural life of the city towards tourism began. A heritage circuit called "Lota Sorprendente” (Amazing Lota) was established with the mission of conserving, restoring and promoting the historical and cultural heritage of the Lota coal mines.
A section of the tunnels in the Lota mine. The company introduced Eucalyptus in Chile to obtain the ...
A section of the tunnels in the Lota mine. The company introduced Eucalyptus in Chile to obtain the wood used to support the tunnels under the sea. Tunnels are completely dark; photo taken with flash.
Former coal miner Sergio Constanzo  now a tour guide  explains the history and operation of the mine...
Former coal miner Sergio Constanzo, now a tour guide, explains the history and operation of the mine. The miners had canaries in small cages to detect the presence of dangerous gases in the tunnels.
Visitors climb the long stairs to the exit from the mine. On the right-hand side are the old rail tr...
Visitors climb the long stairs to the exit from the mine. On the right-hand side are the old rail tracks used to move the carts with the coal extracted from the mine, In 1958, the annual production was as high a 1,715,000 tons.
The “Amazing Lota” Tour Circuit is operated by the "Baldomero Lillo Corporation". It includes visits to a section of the mine known as “Chiflón del Diablo" (The Devil's Blast), the Historical Museum of Lota, the "Isidora Cousiño Park", and the "Pueblito Minero" (Little Mining Town), a set of buildings used as scenography for the film Sub-Terra, based on short stories published in 1904 by Chilean writer Baldomero Lillo.
More about Lota, Coal mines, Chiflon del Diablo, Tokens, company store
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