Photo © David Wiltsee
Perched on Interstate 80 atop a history-rich ridge between the American and Bear Rivers, Colfax is the prototype California railroad town. Established in the 1840s as Alder Grove (later Illinoistown) as a small trade center for area ranchers and gold miners, Colfax became an early staging point for east-bound transcontinental rail construction. Here began the "assault on the High Sierra" in September, 1865.
Named for U.S. Speaker of the House (later Vice President) Schuyler Colfax, who once breezed through town inspecting rail line progress, Colfax soon became a local transportation hub. A stage/wagon toll road completed in 1870 connected Colfax and Iowa Hill (now the Stevens Trail), separated by the steep North Fork American River Canyon.
In 1876, the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railway (affectionately dubbed Never-Come-Never-Go by impatient locals) connected Nevada City and Grass Valley to the Central Pacific transcontinental line terminating at Colfax. The NCNG carried passengers and freight to Colfax until it shut down in 1942.
With the advent of the automobile, the transcontinental Lincoln Highway was designated in 1913, passing right through downtown on Main Street. The Lincoln Way east of town is now Rollins Lake Road and Magra Road, toward Gold Run. Westbound from Colfax the Lincoln Way is Canyon Way.
Fruit growing, dating back to Gold Rush days, prospered in the foothills in the Colfax vicinity for a century, from the 1850s to the 1950s. On Colfax's South Auburn Street is the former Cortopassi Winery, established in 1914 to take advantage of the "horseless carriages" passing through town on the fine new coast-to-coast highway.
Completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made possible the export of apple and pear crops to hungry Eastern markets. Still standing, fruit packing sheds next to the rail lines hummed with activity for decades, until a disastrous pear blight in 1954 doomed the industry.
For a small town, Colfax has much to see. Two rail depots (passenger and freight) have been renovated with help from members of the Place Sierra Railroad Heritage Society and local citizens. Both depots are on the National Register of Historic Places.
A depression-era Art Deco elementary school is now a community center. Several buildings in the small downtown pre-date the Gold Rush. A stately old hotel, standing watch over downtown Colfax, remains a work in progress.
Nearby are recreation opportunities and vistas: hike the Stevens Trail into the canyon of the North Fork American River, visit Rollins Lake and the scenic Bear River, view Cape Horn, or just walk the pleasant small-town streets.
True to its railroad heritage, Colfax has daily AMTRAK service, both east- and west-bound, offering an unforgettable experience via the same tunnels and tracks that unified a nation 140 years ago. A drive-and-ride round trip from Colfax east to Reno or west to the San Francisco Bay area is facilitated by free and safe parking at the Colfax Passenger Depot.
For travelers and other visitors to Colfax and vicinity, the Colfax Heritage Museum/Chamber of Commerce located in the rail passenger depot (99 South Depot Street) is recommended.
Continue north from Colfax to Grass Valley and Nevada City, via Highway 174, or take I-80 eastward toward Dutch Flat, Gold Run, Donner Summit and Truckee. A variety of planned "driving loops" on selected roads will assure visits to many Tahoe-Emigrant Corridor highlights, including Colfax. Key routes are I-80, State Route 49, SR174, SR20, SR88, and SR89, and US 50. Historic routes are the Lincoln Highway and Historic Route 40.