First Transcontinental Railroad-Colfax (No. 780-5 California Historical Landmark)

The Pacific Railroad was one of the most significant and ambitious American technological feats of the 19th Century. There were other transcontinental railroads built in later years. However, the Central Pacific Route is regarded as the most important, and the enduring legacy of railroad engineer, Theodore Judah.

The first train rode through Illinoistown (as Colfax was once known) in September of 1865.

The railroad became a vital link for traders, commerce and travel that joined the eastern and western halves of the United States. The advancement of the railroad opened up expansion opportunities in the West, bringing more population in and further enraging the Native Americans.  Rail service ended slow and often dangerous stagecoach rides. Today, Interstate 80 follows the train route through Placer County and across the Sierra Nevada.

With thousands of people engaged in the mining industry, the railroad experienced a severe labor shortage to hammer the nails and lay the track. The railroads recruited primarily Chinese immigrant laborers. After discovering the immigrants to be hard workers, the railroad searched throughout California for additional Chinese immigrants to work. For 10 to 12 working hours every day, the workers earned $1 to $3.

Governor Leland Stanford broke ground on January 8, 1863 in Sacramento. When the lines reached the Sierra, workers blasted through tunnels through the mountains. The Chinese built 15 tunnels. The blasts were often followed by deaths from snow slides and avalanches. Six years later, on May 10, 1869, the Central Pacific and Union Pacific met at Promontory Summit in Utah. The golden (last) spike was driven with great ceremony. The news was instantly telegraphed to newspapers across the country.

After the railroad was complete, many Chinese immigrants sent for their families still in China and relocated to San Francisco to settle into businesses as laundryman or restaurateurs.   Others moved to the mines. Some had saved their earnings and left for home, returning to their life in China.

The railroad station is located at 99 Railroad Street at Church Street in Colfax.

To learn more about the development of the Central Pacific Railroad, visit the Newcastle Railroad Station. Read about the “Big 4” railroad barons in Auburn. Visit Dutch Flat to find out the early development of the Railroad and the contribution of Dutch Flat to Placer County history. To see historic train cars and guided tours, visit the California State Railroad Museum in Sacramento.

Placer County

Placer is a Spanish word describing surface mining. Gold that had been “placed” in streams or on the ground through natural erosion was processed by planning, rocking, and similar techniques. Such mining efforts made Placer County residents some of the richest in California.

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Latitude: 39.09912 Longitude: -120.95322 Elevation: 2429 ft

About this Establishment

California Historical Landmarks Program

Historical Landmarks are sites, buildings, features, or events that are of statewide significance and have anthropological, cultural, military, political, architectural, economic, scientific or technical, religious, experimental, or other value. Historical Landmarks are eligible for registration if they meet at least one of the following criteria:

1) Is the first, last, only, or most significant of its type in the state or within a large geographic region

2) Is associated with an individual or group having a profound influence on the history of California

3) Is a prototype of, or an outstanding example of, a period, style, architectural movement or construction or is one of the more notable works or the best surviving work in a region of a pioneer architect, designer or master builder.

California’s Landmark Program began in the late 1800s with the formation of the Landmarks Club and the California Historical Landmarks League. In 1931, the program became official when legislation charged the Department of Natural Resources—and later the California State Chamber of Commerce—with registering and marking buildings of historical interest or landmarks. The Chamber of Commerce then created a committee of prestigious historians, including DeWitt Hutchings and Lawrence Hill, to evaluate potential landmark sites.

In 1948, Governor Earl Warren created the California Historical Landmarks Advisory Committee to increase the integrity and credibility of the program. Finally, this committee was changed to the California Historical Resources Commission in 1974. Information about registered landmarks numbered 770 onward is kept in the California Register of Historical Resources authoritative guide. Landmarks numbered 669 and below were registered prior to establishing specific standards, and may be added to the California Register when criteria for evaluating the properties are adopted.

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Time Period Represented



What was the population of Colfax in 1931?

Maurie Rasmussen, 9/19/2016

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