James A. Perkins, co-founder and first permanent resident, arrives in Colfax in 1870.

  • By Kit Oldham
  • Posted 1/10/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5032
In 1870, James A. Perkins and Thomas Smith establish Colfax in a deep forested valley where two branches of the Palouse River meet.  Colfax is the first non-Indian settlement in the fertile rolling hills of the Palouse region located in southeastern Washington along the Idaho border.  Smith soon leaves, but Perkins remains, helping to start the first sawmill in the area and becoming a leading citizen of the new town.

Anderson Cox, a businessman from Waitsburg in Walla Walla County, sent Perkins and Smith to the area to find a millsite.  Cox hoped to build a mill to provide lumber to the settlers who were beginning to populate the Union Flat area south of the Colfax valley. 

Perkins originally called the settlement Belleville, but the name was soon changed to Colfax, in honor of Schuyler Colfax, Vice President during the first term of President Grant (1869-73).  After Whitman County was created in 1871, Colfax became the county seat of the new county.

Shortly after his arrival in 1870, Perkins built a log cabin, which stands today as the oldest building in Whitman County.  In 1872, the first Republican Party convention in the County was held in the cabin.

 36 Years of Sawmilling

After Smith left, Perkins, joined by Hezekiah Hollingsworth, used labor hired by Cox to construct a mill and millrace.  The mill cut its first lumber in September 1871, and the first log drive along the Palouse River took place that year.  Although a crude, slow set-up with a single perpendicular blade, the mill profited by filling the urgent demand for lumber from settlers on the relatively treeless Palouse. 

 Cox died soon after the mill opened, and Perkins sold his share to Hollingsworth.  In 1877, M. J. Sexton and William Codd bought the business, and transformed the inefficient mill into a major Palouse business.  In 1880, they floated two million feet of saw logs, primarily from Idaho, down the Palouse River to the mill in Colfax.  The Potlatch Lumber Company, a Weyerhaeuser affiliate, bought the mill in 1904, and closed it in 1907, bringing an end to 36 years of sawmilling in Colfax.

James Perkins stayed on in the town he co-founded.  In the 1880s, he and his wife Jenny built an elegant Victorian home on the same property where the log cabin was located.  The home was a center of Colfax society into the 1920s.  Like the cabin, the Perkins House still stands; the Whitman County Historical Society maintains both. 

Sources: Robert Hitchman, Place Names of Washington (Washington State Historical Society, 1985), 53; Edmond S. Meany, Origin of Washington Geographic Names (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1923), 52; Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington’s Past (Seattle: University of Washington Press 1990), pp. 1990-91; Keith C. Peterson, Company Town: Potlatch, Idaho, and the Potlatch Lumber Company (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1987), 6-7, 11; Washington: A Chronology & Documentary Handbook ed. by Robert I. Vexler (Dobbs Ferry, NY: Oceana Publications, 1979), 7; "Colfax Town History" (http://www.colfax.com/town/town.html); Whitman County Historical Society, "Perkins House" (http://www.wsu.edu/~sarek/wchs-perkins.html).

Related Topics:   Cities & Towns | Industry | Pioneers

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