The Chicago-Colorado Colony (1871–73) established the city of Longmont near the confluence of St. Vrain and Left Hand Creeks in 1871. Financed by wealthy Chicagoans and consisting mostly of immigrants from the Midwest, the colony was an agricultural community that emphasized thrift, temperance, and the communal use of resources—most importantly, water.
Inspired by Horace Greeley’s Union Colony, members of the Chicago-Colorado Colony built a robust irrigation system that allowed Longmont to prosper as a major agricultural hub along the Front Range for nearly a century. Many of Longmont’s streets—including Bross, Collyer, Gay, Pratt, and Terry—are named for colony founders. In addition to establishing some of Colorado’s first public parks, the Chicago-Colorado Colony was also home to the state’s first public library.
Though it eventually adopted the idealistic slogan of “industry, temperance, and morality,” the Chicago-Colorado Colony had somewhat less idealistic origins as part of a scheme to sell railroad land. To encourage railroad building in the American West during the nineteenth century, the US government routinely granted railroads land on either side of their right-of-way; the railroads could then offer the land for sale to pay for railroad construction or to make a profit.
By 1870 the Denver Pacific Railroad (DP) was looking to sell land along its right-of-way between Denver and Cheyenne. Chicagoan Col. Cyrus N. Pratt was the general agent of the National Land Company, the real estate subsidiary of the DP. Pratt, along with Rocky Mountain News founder and fellow DP investor William Byers, believed an agricultural colony modeled after the Union Colony, established that year in present-day Greeley, made a perfect client.
With Pratt as secretary, the Chicago-Colorado Colony Company incorporated in Chicago on November 20, 1870. Unitarian minister Robert Collyer served as president, with newspaperman Sidney H. Gay as vice president. Another prominent investor was former Illinois lieutenant governor William Bross. In January 1871, while Pratt helped secure some 300 investors in Chicago, Byers led a committee consisting of former lumberman Seth Terry and several other colony representatives to what was then Colorado Territory.
During a tour of the Front Range that included a visit to the Union Colony, the committee crossed paths with Enoch J. Coffman, a homesteader near the small community of Burlington, located along St. Vrain Creek. Impressed with Coffman’s wheat harvest, the committee chose the area near Coffman’s homestead—the confluence of St. Vrain and Left Hand Creeks—for the location of the colony. The Chicago-Colorado Colony quickly bought 23,000 acres from the National Land Company and secured an additional 37,000 acres from the federal government and other landowners.
To recruit new residents for the colony, Byers filled the Rocky Mountain News with advertisements that promised potential colonists bountiful harvests and instant prosperity. The Chicago Tribune published similar ads. Colorado’s climate, said to be a cure for many maladies, already had a sterling reputation in the humid Midwest, so the colony had little difficulty persuading Chicagoans to make the journey across the plains. For $150 plus an initiation fee of $5, colonists received a forty-acre farm, and an additional $50 bought a lot in town.
Once the land was secured, Terry and some 250 colonists took a train to Erie, Colorado, and then wagons to Burlington, arriving at the site of their new home in early March 1871. They built a temporary shelter and set to work digging ditches and building homes. Terry, later elected the colony’s first president, laid out a town and named it Longmont, after the area’s striking view of Longs Peak to the west.
By the end of May 1871, the colony had 390 members, including 151 from Illinois and another 89 from Colorado. Thirty-six came from Massachusetts. Of the Coloradans who relocated to Longmont, about 75 came from Burlington. Others, including doctors Conrad Bardill and Joseph B. Barkley, came from the Union Colony. Longmont’s first winter was mild, leading Terry to mistakenly believe that the colony would not suffer during the coldest months. The next year’s harsh winter changed the settlers’ perception of the climate, but they were undaunted.
Perhaps more important to the colony than anything else were the irrigation ditches, which allowed farming and provided drinking water to Longmont. By the summer of 1871, colonists had dug numerous small ditches in town and near their fields. Initial crops included wheat, strawberries, and pumpkins, and colonists also raised turkeys and cattle for meat and dairy. Illinoisan Jarvis Fox built the colony’s first flour mill in 1872.
In the summer of 1871, colonists had also begun digging an eighteen-foot-wide primary ditch that they called the Excelsior. The colony soon ran out of money, however, and the ditch was never completed. Improvising, the colonists formed the Highland Ditch Company to build and manage their primary ditch, which was now to be called the Highland. Money from a Chicago investor helped pay for the construction of a headgate at the mouth of St. Vrain Canyon, and water from the St. Vrain began flowing into the eight-mile-long, twelve-foot-wide Highland Ditch on March 30, 1873. From there, it was diverted into numerous other ditches to water crops and to provide drinking water to Longmont.
The Chicago-Colorado Colony was home to one of Colorado’s first public parks—Lake Park, named for Lake Michigan and completed in 1871—as well as the territory’s first public library, founded in 1871 by Elizabeth Thompson, a philanthropist who lived on the East Coast. The library doubled as Longmont’s first schoolhouse. Seth Terry’s fourteen-year-old son William attended school there and became the first librarian.
Temperance was enshrined in the colony’s constitution, and anyone caught with alcohol in the early days had to return their land to the colony. However, residents soon put the temperance law to the test, and saloons were allowed as early as 1873. A protracted fight between proponents of drink and of temperance ensued, resulting in periodic bans on liquor between 1875 and 1916, when Colorado instituted statewide prohibition. Legal liquor finally prevailed in Longmont with the lifting of national prohibition in 1933.
Though the community it founded continued to prosper, the Chicago-Colorado Colony essentially ended with the incorporation of the city of Longmont in 1873. The company continued selling off property until it formally dissolved in 1890.
The initial work of the Chicago-Colorado colonists—especially the irrigation ditches they built—allowed Longmont to become one of the most agriculturally productive places in Colorado for nearly a century. The Highland Ditch, for example, has been enlarged six different times since its construction and currently irrigates more than 20,000 acres each year. Residents of Longmont maintain the hard-working, pragmatic attitudes of their predecessors.
Like the Union Colony after which it was modeled, the Chicago-Colorado Colony became a manifestation of communitarian ideals in Colorado. But unlike Horace Greeley’s venture, the Chicago-Colorado Colony was founded on equal parts corporate scheming and utopian idealism. As such, the colony serves as an example of how opposing ideologies of communitarianism and capitalism nonetheless combined to build stable communities in the nineteenth-century American West.