Colfax -- Thumbnail History

  • By Paula Becker
  • Posted 9/20/2010
  • Essay 9580
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Colfax, located on the Palouse River in Southeastern Washington, is the seat of Whitman County.  Whitman is a primarily agricultural county, and the predominant crop grown is wheat, farmed without irrigation across the region's rolling hills.  Among Washington's 39 counties, Whitman ranks first in wheat production, and ranks second in wheat production by county nationwide.  Whitman County also leads the nation in the production of edible dry peas, barley, and lentils, leads the state in hog and pig production, and also produces significant quantities of Kentucky bluegrass seed. The elevation in Colfax is 1,965 feet above sea level.  As of 2009, Colfax had 2,817 residents.  Colfax provides a nexus of services for wheat growers throughout region.

Despite serving as Whitman's seat, Colfax is by no means the county's largest town.   That honor goes to Pullman, 16 miles southeast, where nearly 19,000 Washington State University (WSU) students swell that town's population to almost 25,000.  (WSU is also the single largest employer in the county.)

Early Days

The area that would become Colfax was home to bands of Palouse and other Sahaptin-speaking people, including the Nez Perce Tribe. The Nez Perce Trail, long used by Native Americans on their treks to the Great Plains to hunt buffalo, ran through a small part of southeastern Whitman County.

James Perkins (1843-1920) and Thomas Smith were the first non-Native settlers to the area that would become Colfax, claiming the land at the confluence of the north and south branches of the Palouse River on July 10, 1870.  The two were emissaries of Anderson Cox (1813-1871), a Waitsbug businessman who hoped to build a mill there.  The site Perkins and Smith chose was ideal for this venture -- heavily forested and adjacent to the rushing Palouse river. Smith soon moved on, but Perkins built a cabin there, initially calling his tiny settlement Belleville, but then shifting the name to Colfax. The new name honored Schuyler Colfax (1823-1885), vice-president to President Ulysses S. Grant (1822-1885) from 1869 to 1873. 

Hezekiah S. Hollingsworth (b. 1842) arrived in 1871, followed by other settlers.  In February 1872, Perkins the townspeople hired A. L. Knowlton to plat a town site, and began building their town.

Washington's territorial legislature established Whitman County on January 29, 1871. Colfax was incorporated on January 14, 1879.  William H. James (1832-1920) (formerly acting governor of Nebraska) was the first mayor. The town was reincorporated under state law on April 6, 1891.

Saw Mill and Grist Mill

Perkins and Hollingsworth used labor hired by Cox to build a mill and millrace.  The mill -- a single perpendicular blade that sawed slowly -- began operating in September 1871, with log drives along the Palouse River commencing soon after.  In spite of its inefficiency, Colfax mill met with steady demand as settlers arrived in greater numbers, needing building materials on the relatively treeless Palouse. 

In 1877, carpenter M. J. Sexton (b. 1846) and William Codd (1853-1911) bought the business (by then wholly owned by Hollingsworth), and built the mill into a major Palouse business.  The Potlatch Lumber Company, a Weyerhaeuser affiliate, bought the saw mill in 1904, and closed it in 1907.

From the time of settlement, wheat was the predominant crop in the area surrounding Colfax, and the need for a grist mill was pressing. In 1871 a group of local farmers began canvassing their neighbors and securing their pledges to bring their wheat to a mill in Colfax, as soon as one existed.  By 1872, mill planners had the promise of at least 5,000 bushels to be milled in Colfax.  The mill was built in late 1873, on land belonging to James Perkins.

Colfax Mill could produce 50 barrels of flour a day, and was soon operating around the clock.  Flooding in 1879 badly damaged the mill and took the life of a mill employee.  In 1882, the mill was partially burned, but was rebuilt.  An 1886 enlargement brought the mill's capacity up to 125 barrels per day.  A chop mill was added to produce stock feed, further expanding the mill's income-generating potential. 

On July 9, 1920, friction built up on a belt running the mill’s main pulley ignited a fire, and the mill burned down.  Not until 1936 did a new mill rise. A fire in 1957 destroyed Colfax Mill for the final time.

A Developing Town

On November 10, 1883, the first Columbia and Palouse Railroad train arrived in Colfax. By 1916, three rail lines (the Northern Pacific, Oregon-Washington Railroad and Navigation Company, and Union Pacific) served Colfax.

The Colfax Electric Company was organized in 1888.  Using power generated at William Codd’s sawmill, the company was able to power 240 lamps, and their service was quickly subscribed to by towns people.  Until 1906, power was furnished only from dusk to dawn.  In 1906, the Colfax Electric Company completed a 60,000 volt line to Colfax, installed a substation, and thereafter furnished the town’s power. Washington Water Power purchased Colfax Electric in 1910.

The 1910 Census recorded the population as 2,783 -- this number, or thereabouts, would remain steady over the next century.

Floods and Fire

Colfax's location at the confluence of the north and south forks of the Palouse River, so useful for milling, rendered the town extremely vulnerable to flooding. Severe floods were a real risk to settlers, routinely washing away all they had built.  The town was flooded in 1879 and 1893.  On March 1, 1910,  water from three- to five-feet deep flowed through downtown. Another disastrous flood in February 1948 prompted government studies for a flood-control project deepening the river channel, building retaining walls along the banks, and adding concrete channels to better control the flood of water.

Despite past inundations, Colfax residents were divided on the project and twice narrowly defeated bond measures funding it.  The project was finally approved in 1959. Construction began in 1962 and was completed several years later; part of the town was flooded in 1963, even as the project was underway.  Since 1965, flooding in the city during winter and spring snow-runoffs and rains has been greatly reduced.

Colfax was nearly destroyed by fire on July 14, 1882, but was rebuilt and continued to grow steadily.  The fire claimed all of the fledgling city’s records.


A busy town in its early decades, Colfax had many businesses that catered to transient residents. Hotels flourished, livery stables were plentiful, and laundry/wash-houses handled heavy washing for both permanent and temporary Colfax residents.

Colfax had several brickyards, and these became especially important after the town’s original wood-frame buildings burned. Colfax Iron Works manufactured roller mills and other items needed by farmers in the Colfax area.  The Nelson Draper Factory also manufactured machinery necessary for harvesting and other farming work.

Turn-of-the-twentieth-century Colfax had its seamy side. The city council limited the number of saloons that could operate in town to 10, imposed Blue Laws prohibiting the sale of liquor on Sundays, and prohibited women from working in saloons.  The town had an active red-light district, and a 1915 raid on a laundry rumored to be fronting an opium den yielded opium and smoking paraphernalia, resulting in the arrests of those present at the time.


Charles B. Hopkins (1855-1920) and Lucien Ezra Kellogg (1851-1930) published the first issue of The Palouse Gazette on September 29, 1877.  Kellogg sold his share in 1879, and went on to found a number of other newspapers in the region. 

Hopkins sold his shares in 1888 -- he was absorbed in a new venture, that of bringing telephone service to the region, and had recently founded the Inland Telephone and Telegraph Company of Spokane. The paper's name was changed to Colfax Gazette in 1893, and to Colfax Gazette-Commoner in 1932.  In 1952, it again became Colfax Gazette, and later Whitman County Gazette.


Colfax College, a small private college, was founded in by members of Colfax Baptist Church in 1878. Leoti West was the school's first teacher. The school initially shared the church’s space, gaining a building of its own in 1887.  In 1902, following years of financial difficulties, Colfax College became English's Collegiate Academy.  The school closed in the late 1920s, and the building became the Whitman County Interstate Museum, which closed in 1947.

Colfax's first grade school opened in 1872.  E. H. Orcutt (b. 1843) was the first teacher.  The original building was remodeled in 1910. Over time, a number of smaller school districts have been consolidated into the Colfax district.  A new elementary school building was dedicated on September 24, 1953.  Initially called Colfax Elementary, in 1970 the name was changed to Leonard M. Jennings Elementary to honor a former principal. 

Colfax High School was built in 1891, with a new building constructed in 1910.  This building was replaced in 1960.

The mascot for the Colfax school district is the bulldog.  Since its formation in 2002, the not-for-profit Colfax Schools Foundation has raised money for Colfax schools, serving as an umbrella for endowments and memorials.


In November 1944, Whitman County residents voted to approve the foundation of a library district.  By 1948, there were 25 branches serving residents across the county.  (As of 2010, there are 14 branches.)  Colfax's branch -- the system's main -- was first located, temporarily, in the county courthouse, then in a rented former tavern.  In 1960, the Colfax branch got its own new building.  The Friends of Whitman County Library was organized in 1983.

The Colfax branch is an important hub of community life.  One unique way the library serves its patrons is through the use of borrowed books-on-tape in the cabs of combines and tractors -- listening to these helps time pass more quickly for farm laborers whose days stretch as endlessly as the rolling wheat they tend.


The Catholic Sisters of Charity built a small hospital in Colfax in 1893, lured there by the promise of free land and a cash bonus if they would locate in Colfax rather than in Pullman or Palouse City.  Called St. Ignatius, this was the first hospital in Whitman County. 

The building was greatly enlarged over time, but remained antiquated by modern standards.  In 1964, St. Ignatius Hospital risked losing its license if not completely remodeled.  Whitman County decided instead to relocate the hospital services, and raised $600,000 over the next seven months in order to accomplish this.  The new hospital, renamed Whitman Community Hospital, was dedicated November 3, 1968.

By the late 1970s, lack of physicians, changes in demographics and in Medicare brought Whitman Community Hospital to the brink of closure or conversion into a nursing home facility.  Instead, three University of Washington trained physicians with ties to Colfax took on the challenge of converting the hospital into an acute care facility, steadily expanding services over time.  As of 2010, the revitalized Whitman Hospital and Medical Center has 200 employees and serves a 1,200 square mile region.

Clubs and Civic Organizations

The Free Masons organized a Colfax chapter in 1874, and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows followed in 1878.  The Eastern Star organized a Colfax chapter in 1887, and the Daughters of Rebekah (the Odd Fellow’s auxiliary) the same year.  Other organizations dating from Colfax’s earliest days include the Knights of Pythias, Grand Army of the Republic outpost, Woodmen of the World and Modern Woodmen of America, and a temple of the Rathbone Sisters (formerly Pythian Sisters).

Colfax also had an active Ladies Improvement Club that worked steadily to bring the comforts of genteel civilization to the town.  Through their auspices, a drinking fountain downtown and a women’s rest room with nursery, reading area, and an attendant became welcome features for country residents doing business in town. 

During both World Wars, Colfax’s Red Cross chapters were extremely active.

Religious Communities

Colfax Baptist Church was organized in 1876, and congregants built a church in 1878. In 1919, this building became the parsonage, and a new church was constructed. This church was replaced with a brick church building in 1959.  The church operated Colfax Academy (later Colfax College).

Colfax’s Methodist congregation was organized in 1876, and for the first three years of its existence, met in schools, private homes, and the Baptist church building while raising funds for their own sanctuary. The church was built in 1880, and destroyed by flood in 1910.  Rebuilt the following year, the new church boasted the first pipe organ in Colfax. The glory was short-lived, however, since fire destroyed the building and the organ in 1920.  Undaunted, the congregation built again the following year.

Tent meetings near the railroad depot in 1912 marked the beginnings of Colfax Church of the Nazarene.  After sheltering in homes and in a theater, the congregation built a church in 1916.  In 1963, the congregation built a new, larger, church building.

St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was formed in 1878, and during the congregation’s earliest years, visiting priests said mass in local homes, since no building had yet been erected.  St. Patrick’s Catholic Church was built in 1894-1895, and replaced by a new building in 1959.

Good Samaritan Episcopal began meeting in 1891, at first meeting in a space over a saloon.  The congregation erected a sanctuary in 1892, and this building was extensively remodeled in 1924.  Just after a major update in 1956, the building was gutted by fire, necessitating new construction.

Colfax Congregational Church was founded by Rev. Cushing Eells (1810-1893) in 1878.  Eells was the founder of Whitman College and also did missionary work among the Spokane and Colville tribes.  With financial help from Eells, Colfax Congregationalists erected a church building in 1879.  This building sustained severe damage in the flood of 1910, and the property on which it stood was sold to the city of Colfax and repurposed as a park named in Eells’s honor.  The Congregationalist rebuilt nearer to the center of town.

The Church of Jesus Christ, Latter Day Saints (Mormons) established a presence in Colfax in the mid-1950s, and purchased an existing building in 1972.  Colfax also has longstanding Presbyterian, Lutheran, Seventh Day Adventist, Assembly of God, Christian Science, and nondenominational Bible Church congregations.

Jews of all backgrounds find opportunities for community and educational activities and worship within the Jewish Community of the Palouse, an unaffiliated organization that serves Jews in Pullman, Moscow, Idaho, and throughout the Palouse.

Colfax Today

Outdoor recreation, hunting, fishing (in nearby lakes and year-round in the Snake River, about 20 miles south of Colfax) draw tourists to the Colfax area, and are enjoyed by local residents.  Colfax residents experience small town life, but also access to the educational, cultural, and social opportunities offered by nearby Pullman. 

Colfax celebrates Concrete River Days, a festival welcoming summer, each July.  In autumn, the Palouse Empire Threshing Bee and Palouse Empire Fair highlight the town's rural heritage.

Sources: Edith Erickson, Whitman County: From Abbieville to Zion (Colfax: University Printing, n.d.), 17-18; Ruth Kirk and Carmela Alexander, Exploring Washington's Past: A Road Guide to History (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1990); HistoryLink.Org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Whitman County -- Thumbnail History" (by Phil Dougherty), and " James A. Perkins, co-founder and first permanent resident, arrives in Colfax in 1870" (by Kit Oldham) and "Three gangsters rob First Savings & Trust Bank in Colfax on September 21, 1932" (by Mavis Amundson) (accessed August 28, 2010); Saddlebags To Scanners: The First 100 Years of Medicine in Washington State ed. by Nancy Rockafellar and James W. Haviland (Seattle: Washington State Medical Association, 1989), 289 ; Newton Carl Abbott and Fred E. Carver, The Evolution of Washington Counties compiled by J. W. Helm (Yakima: Yakima Valley Genealogical Society and Klickitat County Historical Society, 1978), 128; Colfax, Washington website accessed August 29, 2010 (; Colfax, Washington, Chamber of Commerce website accessed August 29, 2010 (; Colfax Area Profile website accessed August 29, 2010 (; "History" and "About Your Library" and Sabrina Jones, "WCL District connects with he rural districts it serves," Whitman County Library website accessed August 29, 2010 (; Colfax Public Schools website accessed August 31, 2010 (; "Colfax, Washington," website accessed August 31, 2010 (; "Colfax Gazette," Washington Secretary of State Washington National Digital Newspaper Wiki website accessed August 31, 2010 (; “Centennial Edition,” Colfax Gazette, July 13, 1972; Edith Erickson, Colfax 100 Plus (Colfax: Edith Erickson, 1981); W. H. Lever, An Illustrated History of Whitman County, State of Washington (San Francisco: W. H. Lever, 1901); Whitman Hospital and Medical Center website accessed September 20, 2010 (; Florence E. Sherfey, Eastern Washington's Vanished Grist Mills and the Men Who Ran Them (Fairfield: Ye Galleon Press, 1978), 135; Carlos A. Schwantes, Railroad Signatures Across The Pacific Northwest (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993); Jewish Community of the Palouse website accessed September 20, 2010 (; Tour The Inland Northwest website accessed September 20, 2010 (
Note: The spelling of "Belleville" was corrected on November 9, 2015.

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