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 2013, Colfax had 2,845 residents. Colfax provides a nexus of services for wheat growers throughout region.
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 Bellesville, 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.
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.
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 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.
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.