Colfax's namesake was strong advocate for railroad

By: Nancy Hagman, Special to the Colfax Record
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Long before the Civil War took place Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was a strong advocate for the construction of railroads across the nation connecting the western portions of the young country to its roots in the east. It became an even greater necessity in the post-war period. Reconstruction of the South was paramount and there were many debts needing repayment. Besides the obvious monetary and political motivations, there existed a strong desire for social and psychological unification of a country in turmoil. During the summer of 1865, at the request of President Lincoln just before his assassination, Colfax took a lengthy trip across the continent. Today we call these “fact-finding tours” and this was the first of its kind to travel the continent coast to coast by such a prominent personage. After all, the Speaker of the House is the third-highest office of the land. This was a big deal! Word of the tour was common knowledge out west well before Colfax began his journey. Politically savvy businessmen such as the Big Four of the Central Pacific – Leland Stanford, Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins and Charles Crocker – knew how to make an impression. In June, while Colfax was en route, a plat had been laid out for a town at the 2,400-elevation level in the Sierra foothills. It was named for the Speaker. Leland Stanford, ex-governor of California and president of the CPRR signed it into the records well before Colfax reached California. On July 1, Colfax and his party arrived in San Francisco via the Carson Pass route. The Placerville-Sacramento train and steamship to the bay traveled 3,710 miles total, coast to coast. After a few days rest, they traveled throughout July to the northwest, ultimately returning to the Golden Gate from Victoria, Canada down the Pacific Coast aboard the steamship “Sierra Nevada.” The entourage spent August touring California: Yosemite, Napa, the Geysers, the mines and a careful inspection of the Central Pacific construction. In his subsequent speeches, Colfax called the latter the single most important aspect of the entire journey. Samuel Bowles, traveling with Colfax, reported in his journal, “Across the Continent” (1865), “Our party made a very profitable and interesting excursion over the route of the Central Pacific Road from Sacramento to Donner Lake, on the eastern slope of the mountains, by special train and coaches, and along the working sections on horseback. The track is graded and laid, and trains are running to the new town of Colfax (named for the Speaker), which is fifty-six miles from Sacramento. Grading is now in active progress on the next section, to Dutch Flat.” It is well documented that Colfax, a small, stocky man – he was 5 foot 6 inches – was very demonstrative and friendly, hence popular. He spoke to groups both large and small every chance he could. So, there can be little doubt Colfax took time to speak to the workers, businessmen and populace of this California town that bears his name. After a final speech in San Francisco, Colfax and his traveling companions departed by sea and returned to the east via Panama on Sept. 3. Colfax was successful in his 1868 bid to be General Grant’s vice president. Near the end of the four-year term, he was associated with a scandal. Although never formally charged, it nonetheless ended his political life. Schuyler Colfax spent the balance of his career in much demand as a lecturer, the most popular topic being the transcontinental journey of 1865. He was on the speaking circuit about eight months every year. En route to a lecture in Iowa on Jan. 13, 1885, he walked about three-quarters of a mile in -30 degree temperature while changing trains in Mankato, Minn. Just moments after arriving at the station, he collapsed and died of a heart attack due to the exposure. He was 61 years old.