The Puget Sound Co-operative Colony

The first of the late 19th century intentional communities in Western Washington

Many believe that intentional communities are a phenomena that started in the 1960s along with alternative life styles. They would be surprised to learn about Fruitlands, a vegan community that held property communally, founded in 1843 in Massachusetts. Among its residents were Amos Bronson Alcott, the Transcendentalist reformer and a co-founder, and Louisa May Alcott, one of his daughters and the future author. Or they might be equally surprised to learn of the Oneida Community, founded in New York in 1849, which also held property and possessions communally and practiced a form of mediated polyamory called complex marriage.

The State of Washington also had several fledgling intentional communities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Each of these was secular. They were founded either on the Roachdale Principles for cooperatives or Socialist colonies. Most were short-lived in their original manifestations, with some transforming into small towns that continue to exist today.

The oldest of these was the Puget Sound Co-operative Colony, founded in 1887 at the East End of Port Angeles. Although envisioned as a workers’ commune, it functioned more as a collective. The founding leaders, George Venable Smith and Daniel Cronin, were labor activists who instigated against Chinese workers. They took inspiration for a labor colony from Fourierism (particularly Guise) and the Georgist community of Topolobampo. Several organizers acted as ambassadors, seeking subscribers to the effort from as far afield as the Midwest, Toronto, and London. With the funds they collected, the colony purchased two hundred acres of timberland. This included the mouth of Ennis Creek and the beach west of there. Later they purchased another thousand acres of timberland.

The colony suffered from a lack of planning. By the summer of 1887, well over 200 had arrived. A substantial number of arrivals were children and the infirm. The ratio of highly skilled to less skilled workers was too high. There was little housing for them. Many found accommodations in tents with a communal kitchen and dining room that served up to a hundred. Some had to endure winter in the tents.

The colony, in short succession, erected a saw mill, a tramway for moving harvested timber, and a brick kiln. Despite the building materials they provided, this was insufficient for the construction of all the necessary housing. The colony did address the initial lack of schooling and medical care by bringing in a teacher and a succession of doctors. Food proved to be abundant, thanks to garden plants and greenhouses supplied by a supporter who owned a nursery in Tacoma. The colony also traded with a nearby Clallam tribal village for fish, seafood, and fruits.

Its governance was a board of trustees elected by stockholders, most of whom were residents. The board in turn appointed foremen for the workers’ teams. The initial election occurred in May 1887, at which time the stockholders also chose George V. Smith as president, effectively the colony manager, for a five-year term. After about a year and a half, dissatisfaction with leadership led to factionalism. The stockholders reconstituted the board in February and March of 1888 while Smith was absent on business, and he lost his board seat and presidency. Any sense of community unity dissipated, and many of the community moved to join those in the West End of Port Angeles.

Successive wildfires burned the saw mill, a shingle mill, the tramway, and much of the colony’s timber. Other colony-run businesses and real estate holdings failed or brought in insufficient revenue. The Panic of 1893 was a further blow to the colony, and by early 1894, a judge put the Puget Sound Co-operative Colony into receivership. That process took a decade to resolve, and in 1904 the colony was legally no more.

Although the colony failed, it made substantial contributions. Its Pioneer Theater was the first in Clallam County, and it built an opera house. The colony’s resident doctor opened his practice to the county, and later served as the Port Angeles postmaster, then as mayor. The colony brought an influx of talent to the area. If the colony did not thrive, Port Angeles did.

Ultimately, like many of the Owenist communities and Fourierist Associations, this secular utopian colony had no unifying or organizing principle, assuming that if people joined a community simply to share property and resources, then purpose would appear spontaneously.

This article about the Puget Sound Co-operative Colony is the first of a series about 19th century intentional communities in Western Washington. It drew upon the following resources:

  • Hinds, William Alfred (2004) [1908]. ““Fruitlands, the most Transcendentalist of Communities”. American communities and co-operative colonies. Honolulu: University Press of the Pacific. pp. 288–292. ISBN 9781410211521. OCLC 609764632.

  • Hinds (2004). “The Perfectionists and Their Communities”. pp. 152–231.

  • LeWarne, Charles (1995). “The Puget Sound Co-operative Colony: The Model Commonwealth of the Olympic Peninsula”, Utopias on Puget Sound, 1885-1915. Seattle: University of Washington Press. pp. 15–54 ISBN 9780295974446. OCLC 31901256.

  • Oldham, Kit. “The Puget Sound Co-operative Colony is established at Port Angeles in June 1887”. HistoryLink.org.

See also: “Puget Sound Cooperative Colony”. Socialist Party of Washington. Wikipedia.

1 thought on “The Puget Sound Co-operative Colony”

  1. Thanks Peaceray for contributing this account of a bit of community history in our region! I appreciate the way you have contextualized the history of intentional communities and the influences at work in the Puget Sound Co-operative Colony.

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