The Topolobampo cooperative colony was founded at Topolobampo Bay near Los Mochis, Sinaloa, Mexico, by a group of American colonists in 1886. The colony was established and governed under a set of idealistic bylaws, predicated on socialistic reforms. The driving force behind the colonization effort was Albert Kimsey Owen (1847-1916).
After a brief stint as a civil servant in Chester, Pennsylvania, twenty-four-year-old Owen began working as a surveyor and civil engineer for William J. Palmer and the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad. Palmer formed a surveying party which included Owen, whose mission was to reconnoiter a proposed railroad or surface road to Mexico City in 1872. After reaching Mexico City, Owen was sent to Mexico's west coast to look for promising harbor sites, and there he had his first look at Topolobampo Bay.
From 1873 through 1880 Owen worked to implement his dream of a port at Topolobampo Bay. He won approval of his plan for canals, highways and rail travel in Mexico. Owen quickly organized an American syndicate and with fourteen other members of the United States contingent, embarked on a journey in late August of 1880, bound for Vera Cruz, Mexico. The ship was lost in a hurricane off the coast of Florida with only four survivors. The accident cost Owen five years. Concessions were lost, plans and contracts had to be renegotiated. Finally in 1885, Owen was once again ready to return to Mexico.
Owen’s original plan was to build a railroad from Texas to Topolobampo (the Texas, Topolobampo, and Pacific Railroad). However, having grown up with a Quaker father and having lived for a time at Robert Owen’s (no relation to him) utopian colony in New Harmony, Indiana, A. K. Owen was a staunch and idealistic Socialist in addition to being a railroad promoter and engineer. Thus, his new plans included a cooperative colony in Sinaloa where the reorganization of labor and distribution followed the principles laid out in his essay "Integral Co-Operation." This socioeconomic treatise determined that labor was the source of all wealth, and that wealth, the end product of labor, should be justly dispersed through a system of credits. Out of this plan for a better world came the Credit Foncier Company of Sinaola. The Credit Foncier Company issued stock, script and credits in return for labor which benefited the colony. It was also the agency used to acquire and hold land for Owen and the colony.
Plans for the colony included a grand city called Pacific City, based on Owen’s utopian ideal, as well as several agricultural colonies along the Fuerte River to the north of Topolobampo Bay. The railroad and the colony were to be mutually beneficial, each to stimulate growth of the other. However, the colony never had much success and the premature settling of twenty-seven colonists at Topolobampo in 1886 ultimately concluded with the "grand experiment's" failure. The reasons were multifarious and complex.
Although Christian B. Hoffman, a Kansas businessman, and Michael Flürscheim, a German land reformer, tried to infuse new life into the colony and mediate between all the factions that splintered the colonists, their efforts failed. In fact, this further divided the colonists into the Owen supporters versus the Hoffman/Flürscheim supporters. The whole episode was referred to as “the conspiracy” and involved many tense meetings and a flurry of communication back and forth. It was a battle fought in public, both in Mexico and the United States, through two newspapers--Owen’s New City and Hoffman’s Integral Co-Operator. The Hoffman/Flürscheim camp tried to form their own co-operative, called the Freeland Co-Operative Society, based in Libertad in Sinaloa. Though the co-operative never became a reality, the Hoffman/Flürscheim group did manage to build an irrigation ditch to foster agriculture.
Many personalities came into play in Sinaloa: Marie Howland, a socialist author and editor of the Credit Foncier of Sinaloa; Christian B. Hoffman, organizer of the Kansas-Sinaloa Investment Company, initially formed to purchase land for the floundering Credit Foncier; and John W. Lovell, a publisher and ardent reformer who was a loyal supporter of Owen. Yet, in the end, it was Owen who was held ultimately responsible for the failure of the colony.
Albert K. Owen left the colony in 1893, never to return. He continued to publish optimistic views of the colony in New City but by then the colony was, for all intents and purposes, defunct. The land was eventually cultivated by the Sinaloa Sugar Company (run by B.F. Johnston). Owen’s proposed railroad, which eventually became Arthur E. Stilwell’s Kansas City, Mexico and Orient Railroad (later the Chihuahua and Pacific Railroad), was not fully realized until 1962.
The photographs in the collection were all taken by Ira Kneeland, the colony’s official photographer. Most of the photos were transferred from Kneeland’s original glass plate negatives, which depict the social as well as economic aspects of the colonists’ lives as well as the development of the colony. Much of the collection was donated by Viola Gabriel in 1955 and by Ray Reynolds in 1972. Some of the photographs came from Lois Sinclair in 1990 as well as other Kneeland family members over the years.
For the full guide to the Topolobampo collection, please see: http://csufresno.edu/library/subjectresources/specialcollections/topolobampo.pdf.