From Gillen to Marvin to Colfax, hotel stands test of time

By: Nancy Hagman, Special to the Colfax Record
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Dan Gillen knew the need for a good hotel at the junction of the Nevada County Narrow Gauge and the main transcontinental line in Colfax. Most of the early hotels had either been destroyed by fire, or torn out to make way for rail-line improvements. Since it opened as the Gillen Hotel in 1903, the property has had many owners and the business run by numerous proprietors (Colfax Record, Feb. 14, 2013).

While naming the hotel after himself, Gillen incorporated the Colfax Hotel Company that controlled the property. This he sold to C.E. Skidmore and his wife, Margaret, in 1906. The Skidmores retained the property for 23 years, selling to George West in 1929. Upon West’s death in 1933, ownership was retained by his wife Frances E. (Emma) West with the help of her son Francis West.

During the Skidmore ownership the facility was leased to Fred Marvin in 1919 and it became the Marvin Hotel. In 1923 the lease went to Fred C. Dill, who changed the name to the, still current, Colfax Hotel.

In 1935, Jim Henry – who later served as mayor of Colfax and as Placer County supervisor – came to town as a boy to live with his mother and his grandmother, Grace Stone. She had purchased the Colfax Hotel lease and business from Dill in 1943 for $8,000. Henry’s childhood was filled with hotel chores.

He recalled in an interview with Colfax Historical Society newsletter editor Patricia Wilt in the late 1980s that the dining room was very successful. It seated about 100 people. Stone’s daughter, Bea and “Uncle Harold Smith,” helped with cooking and maintenance. “People would come from miles around to enjoy Grandma’s chicken and dumplings and the smell of her yeasty Parker House rolls permeated Colfax,” Henry said. They used oil burning stoves to cook and for heating.

There were originally 56 hotel rooms and each member of the Stone family and employees had their own quarters, leaving 44 rooms available to travelers. Most of the rooms were taken by railroad engineers and firemen who had homes elsewhere, but used the Colfax Hotel as a work dorm – at a cost of $17.50 per week. These men were ‘on call’ to place the helper engines on trains for the climb over the summit.

According to Henry, the hotel was kept quiet so workers who had the night shifts could sleep. Even the dining room conversations were murmurs.

After the Marvin Inn burned down in 1939, Stone acquired the Greyhound and the Burlington bus franchises, which included serving meals to passengers.

Stone operated the Colfax Hotel for only three months before selling hotel lease and business to John Kauffman for $18,000.

During the remainder of World War II, Kauffman had the only restaurant with enough rationing points to be open on a 24-hour basis. The other eateries had to close or greatly curtail operations.

In 1950, Everett Richardson of Davis purchased the hotel and remodeled the interiors. Four years later, he sold to E.C. and Anna Sullivan, who were in business for only a year. Henry Woempner purchased the facility and ran it until his death in 1971. The widow, Willie May Woempner, sold the building to Ellis and Carrie Brown in 1972, the same year Ellis Brown died. Attempts made to keep the facility operational were to no avail.

On May 1, 1971, the Colfax Depot closed when Southern Pacific stopped passenger service. At that time Amtrak declined to serve to the Colfax Passenger Depot.

In the fall of 1988, owner Carrie Brown sought to refurbish the Colfax Hotel building. Hoping for a Community Development Block Grant, Brown was taking bids from contractors to improve the outside and make renovations including rewiring and re-plumbing the entire structure and installing fire sprinklers. Brown had plans to install space for six or seven shops for rental on the first floor. If that had been successful, she would then do the improvements to the other two floors, possibly townhouses or offices. However, the grant application was unsuccessful.

Upon Carrie Brown’s death in 2001, her children inherited the empty building and sold it to Jim Payne. Payne started renovations that included a new roof, foundation and exterior painting. Payne also donated the exterior paint for the passenger depot, which was undergoing refurbishing. The depot work, including the new plaza park, continued and was completed enough for the opening of the Colfax Heritage Museum in 2005.

For a short time, the center of Colfax looked tiptop and ready for a new millennia. Then the “Great Recession” hit. Due to financial constraints, Payne was never able to complete the hotel renovations.