The Chivilingo Hydroelectric Plant is located in the Arauco Province, 14 kilometers to the south of the city of Lota, in Chile.

Commissioned by the wealthy Cousiño family in 1896, designed by Thomas Alva Edison and opened in 1897, many consider it to be an engineering milestone of the late XIX century, until Thursday.

After decades of neglect, and due to the ineffectiveness of local and national authorities, the roof of the building collapsed. Its overall condition is almost just as bad.

After its opening, it became the first of its kind in the country and the second hydroelectric complex in South America. Hitherto, it remains the oldest of these builings standing up on Earth.

Well, sort of.

Chivilingo Hydroelectric Plant
Chivilingo Hydroelectric Plant

It literally powered the blooming mining industry that Lota had in the 1890s, mainly coal, which up until then relied entirely on horses and carriages.

The thriving business required electric trains to be incorporated into daily activities, so the plant was conceived in that spirit.

Besides, by 1895, the underground sea mine was already 12 kilometers long, so electricity became a pressing issue in the area.

Luis Cousiño’s widow, Isidora Goyenechea, made her late husband’s dream a reality: the construction was executed by US company Consolidated Co. and the equipment was brought from Nuremberg, Germany, by Schuckert & Co.

Bulls had to carry the freight from the Lota port to its current location, but the team encountered another problem when work began: they did not have cement, which was replaced by using sediment from the Chivilingo River, seashells and eggs.

Upon completion, the plant was able to produce 400 volts (that increased with later improvements) in a five hectare lot for 77 years, until 1974.

Not only did it help mining, which slowly started to decline until Lota became one of the poorest cities in Chile, currently with one of the highest unemployment rates; but it also fostered several other businesses and companies in the Bío Bío region.

Chivilingo Hydroelectric Plant
Chivilingo Hydroelectric Plant

When it closed, the regime led by general Augusto Pinochet tried to sell it to the United States, but they failed to succeed.

In 1990, the Chilean State granted the building the style of a historic national monument and in 2004 it was recognised as a “milestone” by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

In 1998, the City Council allowed a non-profit organization to run the place, so it became a minor tourist attraction.

Chivilingo Hydroelectric Plant
Chivilingo Hydroelectric Plant

The hardest blow for the dilapidated power plant was the 2010 8.8 magnitude earthquake, which easily damaged the structure given that no repair work had ever been conducted in it.

Then, it officially closed its doors to the public awaiting a restoration initiative that was announced by the Lota City Council this Friday (US$119,000), almost 24 hours after the incident occured and decades after it was needed.

Every Summer, around 15 thousand people camp near the plant, as the land that surrounds it became a holiday center, ran by a private entity.

This article was written with the help of Jonathan Flores.