The port city of Valparaiso, Chile is built on dozens of steep hillsides giving the town a unique layout comprised of warrens of alleys and side streets, the improvised nature of which has earned the nickname, “The Jewel of the Pacific.”
The neighborhood built on Bellavista Hill features one of the city’s most unique features with its system of boxy elevators that ferry people up and down the steep, closely-packed hill. Known as “funicular” elevators, the unusual public transit method consists of a cable car which is pulled up and lowered down a steep incline. Looking like small boxcars that are delicately balanced as the metal cable drags them up the hill, the elevators recall American railroad engineering put to some off-kilter purpose.
With the first such elevator dating back to 1911, they continued to pop up around the densely populated hill, connecting formerly isolated neighborhoods, until there were 31 working elevator sites. Unfortunately with a downturn in the Valparaiso economy caused by the construction of the Panama Canal, a number of people moved from the city and many of the mechanical elevator stations fell into disrepair, or shut down completely, tragically cutting off people who had come to depend on the rails for transportation.
After decades of neglect, the number of working elevators in the city has dwindled to just 14. However, efforts undertaken by the World Monuments Fund and others have begun making plans which could help preserve the unique pieces of civil ingenuity. Hopefully Valparaiso’s elevators can continue to ascend in importance so that they don’t go down forever.