By Don Southerton, BCW Global Editor
I’d like to share the abstract for an updated article on Henry Collbran, the early 20th century concessionaire who established a number of Korea’s first western style ventures. The full version of Collbran’s story will be published in the near future. Meanwhile, here’s a teaser.
Colorado’s Henry Collbran
and the Roots of Early Korean Entrepreneurialism
By Don Southerton
The signs of American activity, in the capital alone, are evident upon every side. The Seoul Electric Car Company, the Seoul Electric Light Company, and the Seoul (Fresh Spring) Water Company have been created by American enterprises, backed by the “liveness” and ‘cuteness (sic) of the two concessionaries…and pushed along by little diplomatic attentions upon the part of the American Minister.
Angus Hamilton, Korea, 1904
Korean brands have gained significant market shares in the United States and globally. Buyers find the products of high value and quality along with a trendy design. Another reason for this success with American consumers is Korean brands build upon themselves–asa Hyundai or Kia car owner shop at Forever 21, while toting a Samsung Galaxy smartphone.
What may surprise many is Colorado’s ties to Korea – for it was Denver-area entrepreneurs who provided early 20th century Korea with technology and know-how. The most successful of these capitalists was Henry Collbran (1852-1925). British-born, Collbran emigrated to America and found employment in the railroad industry, first in the Southeastern United States, and then in a number of diverse Colorado business ventures.
On word that East Asia held rich untapped mining opportunities Collbran left for Korea in 1896 and after passing up the opportunity to invest in a gold mine concession the businessman was contracted to build the nation’s first railroad from the port city of Incheon to the capital Seoul. After the railway project, and with the assistance of Horace Allen, the missionary-doctor turned head of the U.S. legation, Collbran and his junior associate Harry Bostwich secured the franchise to electrify sections of Seoul and build a modern streetcar system. Over the next several years, the entrepreneur with additional concessions from Emperor Kojong operated the electric streetcar line, the power system, the first telephone system, a modern waterworks, a bank, a coin mint, and even a movie theater.
With the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan gained control over the East Asian peninsula. In the wake of the change, Collbran sold his major municipal assets to British and Japanese firms at considerable profit. Turning to mining rights granted prior to the Protectorate Treaty, Collbran pressed American and Japanese officials for the rights to develop the massive Kapsan copper mine near the headwaters of the Yalu River, in addition to leasing the Suan gold mining operation. With support from investors, including beer baron Adolph Coors, at peak production the mines employed over thirty Anglos, including Collbran’s sons, along with five thousand Korean and Chinese laborers. Under pressure from the Japanese, the Kapsan mine of nearly one thousand square miles was sold in 1915. The Suan mine played out in 1924. Collbran died in his native England a year later, after spending the last decade living a life of leisure.
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Photograph Courtesy of Colorado Historical Society, Denver.