Originally known as Alder Grove, Colfax began as a winter camping
spot for trappers and gold miners in the mid 1800s. They found
a place along Bunch Creek that was generally below the snow
line and retreated each Fall to that place which became known
as Illinoistown. With the passage of time, and the increase
in gold mining activities, the camp grew. It became a village
with a general store, saloons, freight company and even a brothel.
When the railroad was designed, the grade they selected bypassed Illiniostown and the entire town was uprooted and moved to its present location. The name was changed to Colfax in honor of Schulyer Colfax, Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States at the time. He later became Vice President under U.S. Grant. The town was the eastern terminus of the railroad when placement of the "Golden Spike" into the rail bed at Promitory Point, Utah signified the completion of the new transcontinental railway.
The town started as a central transportation, communications and gathering place and it remains so today. It is small, steeped in history and known as the "Gateway" to the High Sierra Mountains and all their beauty, recreation and riches.
The Maidu Indians inhabited this area before the white man arrived on the scene. They were a peaceful tribe that hunted, fished and ground acorns for food. Today a few relatives of these early inhabitants still live in the area. There is a cemetery at the junction of Iowa Hill Road and Canyon Way Road that survives today. It is maintained by volunteers and is an important part of our past.
One can chronicle the past easily by visiting the Colfax Cemetery and reading the old gravestones found there. The names of many of the towns ancestors are there. Some now forgotten but many are the roots of those surviving generations still living in the area. These pioneers built a town with the railroad as its central focus as it still is today. The first fruit trees were imported from Oregon in 1852. This event started the huge fruit and wine industry that boomed through the 1950s.
During the days of railroad construction there was a large Chinese population along with other railroad workers. Gold mining became a much larger business and attracted miners from all over the world to the area and some stayed and opened shops and entered other business endeavors. They started schools and churches. The early schools have disappeared, replaced by more modern structures but some of the churches remain even today.
The town burned three times, then sprung anew from the ashes boasting the "Fire Proof" block that remains today. The roofs of many of the buildings were made of earthen sod and a number of the windows were covered with "Iron Doors" as protection from fire. The new buildings were of brick (made in Colfax) and masonry construction. They stand today as a monument to days and lives long past. The population of Colfax remains about the same today as it was in the 1800s, around one thousand. You will find many plaques placed about town by the Colfax Area Historical Society honoring our rich heritage.
The Later Years
Colfax became the center of transportation on the Western slope of the Sierras. The freight marshaling yards, in Colfax until World War II, had to be made larger. With the advent of new diesel engines that were to replace the nostalgic steam engines, it was decided to move the marshaling yards to Roseville. The old roundhouse was finally removed, in December of 1949, although they left a "Y" that remains today. It is now used by work trains.
An important part of this journey into history is the role of the Nevada County Narrow Gage Railway in the development of the foothill economy. In the year 1876 a railroad was built to carry machinery and supplies to the very successful hard rock mines in the Grass Valley and Nevada City areas. It joined the transcontinental rail line at Colfax. Old "Never Come - Never Go," as it was affectionately called, carried freight as well as passengers from 1876 to 1942. Vestiges of the old rail bed can still be seen along state route 174 and you can still find the old small rail spikes, if you are lucky, as you search where the old track lay.
Another important part of our rich history was the placer mining that took place in this area during the 1800s. In 1884 Federal district Court Judge Lorenzo Sawyer issued a decision that ended hydraulic mining in California, but before they were stopped the mines formed an important part of our landscape. The night and day washing away of the earth in the mad scramble to recover the gold secreted in the ancient stream beds gave rise to huge placer mines that left terrible scars in the earth that are visible today. The near areas of Gold Run and Dutch Flat are testimony of the destruction they brought. Millions of tons of earth were washed down the American and Bear Rivers.
Robert Peers came to the area in 1899 and opened his first hospital in 1929. By 1927 the Colfax School for tuberculosis was the largest T.B. group under one supervisor in the United States. It included a Standard Oil Sanitarium for its employees. In 1919 the Weimar Joint Sanitarium opened with Dr. Peers as advisor. The air in the Colfax area was considered the healthiest in the country.
Many of the early advances in electrical power generation were made right here in these foothills. The Pelton Wheel was invented in Comptonville and water powered generation of electricity became practical. There is a museum dedicated to power generation artifacts located in Grass Valley. The first power generated in Colfax was made available by Dan Gillen owner of the Gillen Hotel. P.G.&E. opened its first office in Colfax in 1913. The building of the power generation facilities utilized the water systems built by the Chinese for use in placer mining. These early water delivery ditches are still in use today.