Before Colfax, there was Illinoistown

By Nancy Hagman

The following article was originally published in the Colfax Record on April 13, 2011. It was revised on August 22, 2022.

Out on South Canyon way at the Iowa Hill Road junction is a plaque commemorating a place called Illinoistown.

In local standard history Illinoistown is the predecessor to Colfax. This story has been written many times over the decades.

First the plaque. In 1948, one hundred years after the gold rush started, the Sierra Pines Parlor No. 275 Native Daughters of the Golden West dedicated a marker for Alder Grove, which later became Illinoistown.

It was originally placed 100 feet off the old Highway 40. That’s mystery number one. Where, exactly, was the old highway located? The monument was moved.

According to the same article on the dedication, “history records that at a bend in the valley about half a mile below Colfax, in a narrow place, a fine large spring flowed to the surface, and about a quarter of a mile below that flowed another which had caused quite a boggy land – on the lower side of which grew many thrifty alder trees.”

Thus, the area became Alder Grove, in early 1849.

Soon after, the gold seekers were flowing into the territory, but the smart money was being invested in goods and services for supplying the miners. These were to be provided by the likes of Enos Mendenhall and his wife, Rachel, considered the first white family to arrive in the region.

They built the first hotel in Colfax, but they also erected the first hotel in Illinoistown. Where exactly?

Sears and Miller built trading establishments at the extreme lower end of the valley.

Another by John W. Pierson was at the spring at the narrows and another about a quarter of a mile above, on the eastern side of the valley, was built by a Mr. Neall.

While reading old papers the phrase “town of four houses” surfaced, which would collaborate the original settlement. Again, no exact location.

By one account it was in October that mostly Illinoisans by “acclamation and a bottle of whisky” named the town.

Another tale states in December of ’49 there was a gathering at Pierson’s and a handful of about six miners from Illinois persuaded all to dub the area Illinoistown.

Somebody won at a game of cards.

Illinoistown was, at that time, considered the head of wagon navigation, “from which to the mines on the rivers, and between the North Fork and Shirt Tail, all the supplies of the inhabitants had to be packed on the backs of mules.” This from the business register published in 1861.

Also from that same source was a general story that in “1852 a nursery of fruit trees existed, and some excellent gardens at the place; it being the only account we have of an attempt being made, at that early day, to raise fruit in that portion of Placer county.”

We now know that it was Enos Mendenhall who went back to Oregon and brought back fruit trees to the area in 1850.

The locale thrived as a hub for trading to the gold seekers for the next 15 years.

Even though placer mining declined within two to three years, hydraulic mining was taking off and Illinoistown became a byway to the fields.

Then along came the railroad. Business smarty moved a mile north to be at the railhead. The new town was named for Schuyler Colfax, then Speaker of the House, by the CPRR.

Interestingly, even though annexed by the city, the area has retained it designation as Illinoistown.

Lifelong resident and writer for the Record in the 1980’s, Stella Maria Cortopassi, related her time in the territory. She offers great remembrances of the people and places of that lifestyle.

Her column has presented another mystery as she reports there was a cemetery near the old Winchester house down the hill from her home.

The winery and home that was her residence on Placer Hills Road south of today’s Sierra Market still exists.

More recently, there was a teepee and a rattlesnake pit in Illinoistown on old Hwy 40, but that’s another story.

The resource of Historic USGS maps, each give a different location for what may never have really been a town. But a spread-out area of businesses serving the trail head.

Also, the whole area was basically severed by the construction of I-80.

Did Alder Creek waterway become Bunch Creek?

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