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?

Spring 2022 newsletter

A new issue of the Colfax Cobblestones newsletter is available online. If you are a member of the CAHS, you have received a printed copy in the mail.

The March/April issue of the newsletter has two great articles: Part 2 of John Rambottini’s walk around downtown Colfax, California, a century ago and Roger Staab’s article about how we are organizing the Archives to make them easier for you to do research with the materials. Together these two articles fill eight of the 10 pages in the newsletter.

John Alfred Rambottini and his wife, Daisy, year unknown. John was a member of the Auburn Whiskerinos, “a fun-filled fraternal fixture in Auburn since the 1930s.” Its members joined the Auburn Native Sons of the Golden West in 2002, according to a 2004 article in the Auburn Journal. The Whiskerinos sponsored beard-growing competitions to celebrate 49er culture. Photo from the CAHS Archives.

This and other issues of the newsletter can be read or downloaded on the Newsletter page.

Preparing part 2 of John Rambottini’s walk around Colfax on his day off in the 1920s

We are preparing the March 2022 issue of Colfax Cobblestones. This issue will include the second half of John Alfred Rambottini’s oral history about walking around downtown Colfax on his day off in the 1920s.

The first part of his story was published in the December 2021 issue of the newsletter. His oral history is a wonderful description of Colfax as it was 100 years ago. He recorded his story in February 1987.

Back issues of the Colfax Cobblestones newsletter can be viewed or downloaded.

Memorial Day Flag Ceremony at the Colfax Cemetery

Memorial Day Weekend events in Colfax

There will be a flag ceremony at the Colfax Cemetery on Memorial Day (Monday, May 25) at 10 a.m. Boy Scouts Troop 6 from Meadow Vista will be doing the flag ceremony. Everyone is invited, but we will be social distancing.

The cemetery is located at 180 N. Canyon Way, Colfax, California 95713.

Other events include:

On Friday, May 22, the VFW will be handing out Buddy Poppies at Mar-Val’s Sierra Market.

On Saturday, May 23, the American Legion and the VFW Auxiliary will place their flags on veterans’ graves.

On Monday, May 25, VFW Post 2003 will place flags on Main Street.

March 21 program canceled

The March 21, 2020, program is canceled, because of the spread of the COVID-19/coronavirus.

Following guidelines from both the State of California and Placer County health officials, the CAHS board has decided to cancel the program and reschedule it later when it is safe to do so.

The March issue of the newsletter has an article about the program. The date is now incorrect. The decision to postpone the meeting was made after the issue was mailed.


The Colfax Passenger Depot, Colfax California. The top photo is a historical photo of the building when it was actively used as a passenger depot. The lower photo is the restored depot now, after the efforts of volunteers and the City of Colfax to save the building and restore it. It now houses the Colfax Heritage Museum, the Colfax Area Chamber of Commerce, and a passenger waiting area that is also used for community events and meetings.

Roger Staab will present an intimate look at Colfax’s Southern Pacific Passenger Depot, which opened in 1905 to replace the 1865 Central Pacific Depot.

The Rest of the Story

Join us Saturday, March 21, 2020, at 7 p.m. for Roger’s presentation, which will include then-and-now photos of the history of the passenger depot. We will be meeting in the restored Colfax Passenger Depot, at 99 Railroad St, Colfax, California.

There is no charge. Everyone is welcome. Refreshments will be provided.

We will look at:

  • The new depot’s service to the traveling public until 1971 when AMTRAK took over passenger rail service.
  • The depot’s conversion to office space for railroad maintenance of way personnel.
  • A promised resurrection and new life in the mid-1990’s to serve Capitol Corridor trains only to be followed by disappointment and a change of plans.
  • And ultimately the determination of the City of Colfax and a team of dedicated volunteers to bring the building to its present status as local history museum, visitor center and passenger waiting area.

Along the way we will witness the only time the depot was moved (temporarily) from its original location. We hope you will join us for “the rest of the story” about Colfax’s Southern Pacific Passenger Depot.

NOTE: we have changed the date from March 14 to March 21, because there will be two fundraising dinners in Colfax the night of March 14 (the Colfax Green Machine’s Annual Crab Feed and the VFW Auxiliary St. Patrick’s Dinner). So, we are moving our program to March 21.

CAHS fall schedule changes

Oct. 17 and Nov. 16 CAHS meetings cancelled

The Colfax Area Historical Society (CAHS) board has decided to cancel the remaining CAHS meetings for 2019.

  • There will be no board meeting on Thursday, October 17, at 10 a.m.
  • There will be no general fall meeting with a speaker on Saturday, November 16, at 7 p.m.

The next board meeting will be in February 2020 and the next general member meeting with a speaker will be in March 2020. When the 2020 calendar is ready, the specific dates will be posted on Facebook and the CAHS web site.

If any need or problem occurs before then, the board will convene to handle it.

Oct. 20 special presentation, Sunday afternoon

We invite you to meet with other members of the community for a special book talk and presentation on Sunday afternoon, October 20, from 2–3:30 p.m. in the city council chambers in Colfax City Hall (33 South Main St, Colfax, CA 95713).

This is a special program that was organized by Marnie Mendoza, Colfax Mayor Pro Tem.

The speaker will be Robert B. Wells, author of Voices from the Bottom of the South China Sea: The Untold Story of America’s Largest Chinese Emigrant Disaster. See the Cobblestones article on page 7 for more information.

October issue of Cobblestones newsletter

In 1915, the Freight Depot was in the path of a track realignment and had to be moved–again.

The October issue of the Colfax Cobblestones newsletter was mailed today. All members of the Colfax Area Historical Society will receive a copy in the next few days.

This issue includes a five-page article by Roger Staab: “Colfax’s Much-Travled Freight Depot,” a history of the freight depot that is currently located on North Main Street in Colfax, California, across from downtown businesses. His article includes five historical photos from 1866, 1881, circa 1904, 1907, and 1915.

The entire issue can also be read online or downloaded as a PDF.

Please note that the October issue of the Colfax Cobblestones newsletter will be the final issue of 2019.