Colfax Area Historical Society

History of Colfax

California, the 31st State
1865—The End of a War and the Death of a President
Reconstruction  .  Railroads
The Building of Colfax  .  Our Namesake: Schuyler Colfax


Colfax history
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Phone: (530) 346-8599


USPS mail: Mail for both the Colfax Area Heritage Museum and the Colfax Area Historical Society is received at PO Box 185, Colfax, CA 95713.

Museum location: The Colfax Area Heritage Museum is physically located at 99 Railroad St, Colfax CA 95713.

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California, the 31st State

Any history of a town in California must begin with a history of California.

Our magnificent Pacific Coast state is often referred to as THE GOLDEN STATE. Could this be because of its rich gold fields that attracted thousands of miners to the goldfields during the gold rush of 1849? Could it be because of the golden hue of our California sunshine, or because of the golden color of the sands of beaches and deserts, or even the golden oranges ripening in our sunny orchards? Or, could the name refer to the golden poppies that cover the hillsides in the spring? Well, we think it is probably due to any one of these reasons, or to all of them together. And we know that the name CALIFORNIA probably comes from a Spanish tale about a treasure island in the early 1500s.

The California State seal, which was adopted in 1849, shows the Golden Gate channel and the Sierra Nevada mountains in the background. Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, sits at the right. The miner, the wheat and grapes represent important industries in the State.

The California Bear Flag was adopted on June 14, 1846, by a group of Americans who revolted against Mexican rule. The main feature, the grizzly bear, symbolizes the determination of these settlers to fight for independence. The single star may have come from the "Lone Star" on the flag of the Republic of Texas. The members of the Sonoma "rebels" procured a piece of white muslin, and painted on it the familiar figure of the grizzly bear. The red, five-pointed star was placed at the upper left-hand corner. Underneath in black the words spelled CALIFORNIA REPUBLIC. At the bottom edge of the flag was a red bar or stripe. This new flag of the young republic soon replaced the Mexican flag on the official pole in the old plaza in Sonoma. The white color of the flag stands for purity, and the red in the star and the bar, courage. The bear was regarded as an animal of great strength, and the star denoted sovereignty. William L. Todd, the maker of the original Bear Flag, published a statement in The Los Angeles Express, January 11, 1878 naming several people as participating in the making of the flag: Granville P. Swift, Peter Storm, Henry L. Ford and himself. Mrs. John Sears is named as the provider of the red flannel.

The original flag was preserved for many years at the Society of California Pioneers in San Francisco, however, it was destroyed in the great fire of 1906. The California Blue Book for 1903, 1907, 1909, and 1958 contains a photograph of this flag. The flag was adopted by the Legislature in 1911 on the recommendation of the Native Sons of the Golden West. As almost every schoolchild knows, the California State motto is "Eureka" ("I have found it") and the state song is "I Love You, California." The golden poppy is the state flower and the California Redwood the state tree. We also proclaim the California Valley quail as our state bird. California was admitted to the Union on the 9th day of September of the year 1850.

1865—The End of a War and the Death of a President

Our country had just endured the most violent, deadliest and cruelest conflict, even to this day. The Civil War (1861-1865) killed a generation of young men and left the South devastated. The North also suffered immeasurably. Aimless mutual slaughter seemed to be the order of the day. President Lincoln took a brave action and signed the Emancipation Proclamation effective January 1, 1863 in an attempt to solve the military stalemate. As the end of the war loomed, President Lincoln was reelected in 1864. On April 9, 1865 General Robert E. Lee surrendered for the Confederacy, leaving the South extremely poor. On April 14, 1865 President Lincoln was shot in Ford's Theater in Washington and died the next day. The nation would survive both immense tragedies, given enough time.


The incredible task now at hand was that of rebuilding the nation, both physically and politically. The great dilemmas now were how to readmit the Southern states back into the Union and into Congress, and how to govern the new freedmen as well as the white citizenry. This incredible task fell on the shoulders of Lincoln's Vice President Andrew Johnson, who in continuing Lincoln's methods, did not get along with a Radical Congress. Such disputes led to his impeachment, but not removal from office. The job of rebuilding the nation would take decades and cause more suffering still.


Since the mid-1850s, "crazy" Theodore Judah, a very accomplished railroad engineer from New York, had been trying to promote his idea of a transcontinental railroad to join our East and West coasts. Between 1856 and 1859 he traveled to Washington, DC four times and back to California, trying his best to get federal funding for his dream. One of his arguments was that an iron road would add anti-slavery states to the nation and would tie California's allegiance to the North, thus dispelling the fear that Southerners in gold-rich California might favor secession. At this time, states were threatening to secede and the government just was not interested in trains. Judah came back to California to seek private funding but continued to encounter disinterest and outright hostility.

There was a group of merchants in Sacramento who would be convinced that a railroad could be a potential success. These men, known as the Big Four, were Collis Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins. They saw the need to ship supplies and products to Nevada's new silver mines. The Central Pacific Railroad Company was formed on April 30, 1861. The war had just begun, and Southern congressmen had left Washington. Northern congressmen as well as President Lincoln saw the need to ship gold and troops by railroad and thus agreed to build the railroad as a war measure. The Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 specified that the Central Pacific Railroad Company would start at Sacramento and lay tracks to the California-Nevada boundary. Also, a new corporation, the Union Pacific Railroad Company, would start building rails at the Mississippi River and continue until it joined the CP R/R going East. The government would pay in government bonds.

Building of the railroad started promptly and by Spring 1865, railroad Camp 20 was built just one-half mile above the small settlement of Illinoistown, which got started in 1851 to supply gold miners.

The Building of Colfax

As the iron rails were being laid up the steep slope of the Sierra on their way to Donner Summit, large temporary camps were put up to house and feed the many workers involved in the job. It was Camp 20 which later became Colfax.

The Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax, was sent by the President to check the progress of the work. His great oratory and personal charm made him so popular with the citizens that they named the new settlement after him.

We can just imagine the kind of excitement going on here at this time, lots of people rushing about their work, several nationalities involved, with quite a lot of trading and bustling about.

The new town was laid out by the Central Pacific railroad and sold to two merchants from Auburn. Their names were Mr. Kohn and Mr. Kind. On July 29, 1865 they started the selling of lots to prospective merchants and other folks. It appears that Kohn and Kind realized around $7,000 for all their properties. The finished rails reached Colfax in September and the town remained the terminus of the line for over a year.

The railroad truly transformed this area in a hurry. Before this, people living here were mostly involved in supplying the miners passing through to other areas and catering to their needs. Roads consisted of hard- packed dirt with freight wagons and dusty stages providing travelers with their "comforts." Travel in winter was all but impossible and life was rough. The settlement called Illinoistown contained few families or permanent dwellings, being a collection of tent houses and semi-permanent structures. After the railroad was completed, the more enterprising citizens realized their future belonged in Colfax and very soon they moved up the hill to make the new town their home. Others came from Yuba and Nevada Counties, especially when news came out about the finding of a rich quartz ledge in the neighborhood. Illinoistown quickly disappeared and Colfax really boomed. It was for many years a true railroad town with a large dose of agriculture flourishing in the early part of the 1900s.

Some of the early founders of Colfax were:

Brickell Postmaster and hotel owner
Butler Owned the drugstore on Main St., 1875
Cleveland First postmaster in Colfax, 1866
Egbert Built large brick building on Front St.
Hayford Owned corner market since 1870
Keck Established water works, owned saloon
Kneeland Resident agent for property sales
Lobner Owned general store since 1867
Mendenhall Built and ran the Pioneer Hotel
Mischler Owned the butcher shop on Main Street
Neff Sheriff Placer County, State Senator
Perkins Owned corner market with Hayford
Wallace Owned the general merchandise store

Our City's Namesake: Schuyler Colfax (1823–1885)

The 18th Vice-President of the United States and our town's namesake was born in New York City in 1823. He and his family moved to South Bend, Indiana, in 1836. There he served as deputy auditor of Joseph County in 1841, and became a legislative correspondent for the Indiana State Journal. At 22, he purchased an interest in the South Bend Free Press, which then became the St. Joseph Valley Register. He fulfilled his early ambitions for a public life, and for many years was a successful newspaper editor and politician.

As a member of the State constitutional convention in 1850, he helped produce the State Constitution that is still in effect. He ran unsuccessfully as a Whig for election to the 32nd. Congress, and was elected as a Republican to the 34th and to the six succeeding Congresses during the next fourteen years (1855- 1869). His tenure in the US House of Representatives included three terms as speaker, during which he presided over the difficult Reconstruction Plans after the Civil War, as well as over the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson.

During his distinguished career in Congress he was well known as a very impassioned lecturer and orator. His eloquence on many subjects was legendary. Among his accomplishments was the idea of bringing the US mail to every outpost and hamlet of the country. He fought for this and obtained his goal after many years of legislative struggle. He is also known as a great proponent of the expansion of the country to the West.

As a long-time friend and political ally and supporter of President Lincoln, Colfax was able to lend Lincoln much needed support during the difficult years of the Civil War. He was saying good-bye to the Lincoln family just before the President and his party went to Ford's Theater on the evening of April 14. Colfax left for California and could not attend with them. His visit to our area and eloquent speech in 1865 convinced legislators to approve the plans of uniting the country by means of the transcontinental railroad.

He was elected Vice President of the United States on the Republican ticket headed by General Ulysses Grant in 1868, was inaugurated in 1869, and served for four years. His chances for renomination as vice- president were destroyed by charges of involvement, together with several other congressmen, in the Credit Mobilier scandal of Grant's first term. Even though formal charges against him were never brought, he was unable to "prove his innocence." His career damaged, he retired without bitterness and resumed a career of travel and lectures. His most popular speeches described the American landscape and the life and character of Abraham Lincoln. While on a speaking tour in Minnesota, he died in Mankato, Blue Earth County, on January 13, 1885. He is buried in City Cemetery, South Bend, Indiana.

Links to other California
history web sites:

California Historical Society