Neff's goldhound start led to political career

By: Nancy Hagman, Colfax Record Correspondent
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Jacob Hart Neff was typical of the young gold seekers in 1850. He arrived in Hangtown – better known today as Placerville – in August of that year, having traveled by foot from Iowa. Neff was born in Strasburg, Pa. on October 13, 1830 and by the time of his death in March 1909, he had become one of the most beloved Californians of his time. He called Colfax home. When Neff was a boy his parents moved to Iowa, it was there he learned the blacksmith trade. The gold fever overcame any young sensibility and the 19-year-old headed west. From Hangtown he went to Greenwood Valley, then to Iowa Hill where he mined until 1863. At this juncture, he had accumulated enough funds to enter into a venture with Ben Taylor and the Coleman brothers. Their purpose: to construct a toll road and bridge across the Bear River between Grass Valley and the eminent railhead of the new town of Colfax (see Colfax Record March 22, 2012). There can be little doubt that he was among the many greeters who welcomed Schuyler Colfax, in 1865, to the town that was already Colfax’s namesake. Neff was elected sheriff of Placer County in 1867. From 1871 to 1876, he was elected to the state senate and upon completion of that tenure President Grant appointed him to be a commissioner to inspect the new Oregon-California Railroad. Beginning in 1877, he also served on the board of prison directors for 10 years. His mining activities continued, including being the superintendent of the Rising Sun Mine in Colfax during the 1870s and a partnership in the Pioneer Mine in Humbug Canyon near the American River. He was a charter member of the Hydraulic Miners Association and later served as that association’s president. In 1880, he had his home built in Colfax, on the corner of Grass Valley and Kneeland streets. Prior to being nominated for lieutenant governor in 1898, Neff had presided over three state Republican conventions. According to the November 11, 1898 Colfax Sentinel, “Lt. Gov. Jacob H. Neff of Colfax has been given one of the grandest testimonials to personal popularity ever shown a citizen of California. Mr. Neff is ahead of the ticket by 5,000 votes.” Neff was a member of the Masonic Order. His career with the Masons began at the Wisconsin Hill Lodge No, 74 in 1856. He became a Royal Arch Mason in the Libanus Chapter at Iowa Hill in 1858. He was knighted in the Nevada Commandery No. 6 at Nevada City in 1866, later serving as eminent commander. He assisted in the founding of Siloam Chapter No. 37 RAM at Colfax in 1869 and was high priest for seven years. The high offices he held in the order included grand chancellor of the grand consistory, Scottish rite in 1890 and grand commander of the Grand Commandery of California in 1892. Neff also had a partnership with his nephew, Henry Disque. They operated a general store at Dutch Flat Station, which they sold to Munro and Tetzloff about 1885. As Lt. Governor, it was with this nephew and an old mining partner, William T. Wood, that Neff moved to San Francisco to take up residence in a 16-room house on O’Farrell Street. It was in San Francisco that he left this life. His obituary in the March 27, 1909 San Francisco Call states, “Mining men throughout the state, particularly in Placer County district, will join with his thousands of friends in every other walk of life in mourning ‘Uncle Jake.’” Before his death, Jacob Neff donated an ornate water fountain to the people of Placer County. It still stands near the Placer County Court House.