Colfax in California
By JoAnn Levy
JoAnn Levy is the author of the highly acclaimed They Saw the Elephant: Women in the California Gold Rush, Unsettling the West: Eliza Farnham and Georgiana Bruce Kirby in Frontier California, For California’s Gold: A Novel, and several scholarly articles. At the time of this writing she was a member of the California State Library Foundation’s board of directors.
“Visit all the mining regions,” the president advised Schuyler Colfax, Speaker of the House of Representatives. “Tell the miners I have not forgotten them nor their interests.”
The meeting in the White House that evening of April 14, 1865, was of necessity brief. The President and Mrs. Lincoln were expected at Ford’s Theatre.
In May, Colfax departed for the West, repeating across the country what may have been Lincoln’s last words on a public subject. Traveling in company with Illinois Lieutenant-Governor William Bross and two journalists, Samuel Bowles and Albert Richardson, Colfax spoke ten times in Colorado, seven in Utah, eight in Nevada. A journey two thousand miles by stage undoubtedly cemented his conviction that the nation desperately needed the continental railway finally under construction.
When the travelers reached Carson City, on June 29, a military band greeted their arrival and fireworks lit the sky that night as Colfax addressed its citizens.
The fun had only just begun.
Early the next morning a six-horse coach “specially provided by the Pioneer Line” awaited them. “The ride to the summit of the mountain, and then to Lake Tahoe, was accomplished at a terrific rate of speed,” reported the Daily Alta of July 2, “as it was the design of Col. Bee, of Placerville, who had the matter in charge, to see that the party obtained an adequate idea of California stage driving.” At the reins were Spalding and Taylor, of whom it was said “more daring or more skillful drivers never lifted whip.”
A “sumptuous” breakfast at the Glenbrook House preceded a trip across Lake Tahoe, “delayed somewhat by the disarrangement of the machinery of the steamer, but was greatly enjoyed by the whole party.” Time was not to be wasted. Col. Bee and the six-horse coach, having gone round the lake, waited to welcome the party into California. From there, it was a swift clip down the mountain to Strawberry for lunch, with cheers at every stage station along the road, and a final dash into Placerville. There “the mayor, military and citizens en masse” received them at 7:30 that evening with “salutes and music.” Colfax spoke, was cheered, and feted with a 10 p.m. banquet.
Little rest for the weary. At 6:30 the next morning Placerville’s delegates handed Colfax and friends off to the Sacramento reception committee waiting at White Rock with a “special train” on the Sacramento Valley line. At noon, following a champagne breakfast at Sacramento’s Orleans Hotel on Second Street, Colfax mounted a stand arranged on the sidewalk outside and addressed at length a large crowd waiting in the sun. He first amused them with tales of his trip across the plains, then relayed the late president’s message and, finally, assured them of his opinion that the “product of the mines should not be taxed until it became part of the commerce of the world.” Taxes. That was the worry. Rumor had it that Washington intended to tax California’s fabled mining wealth to refill coffers emptied by the war that saved the Union. What could Easterners know of the West, of mining, of how things were here? California wanted someone to come see. Colfax had come.
And now he was hurried to the steamer Chrysopolis, waiting at Front Street, departing Sacramento at 2 p.m.
At San Francisco’s wharf, that city’s mayor and a reception committee greeted the Colfax party in befitting style with a coach and four cream-colored horses with black manes and tails,
“Furnished by the Fashion stables — the only stables in town where such a turn- out could be found.” Then it was off to the opulent four-story Occidental Hotel at Bush and Montgomery Streets, a “quiet centrally located house where civility and attention are its principal characteristics.” And so to bed.
Such a fortuitous arrival, July. A grand parade was, of course, planned for the glorious Fourth. Colfax must speak. He demurred, but on the great day spontaneous demand prevailed.
“I am unwilling to interrupt the harmonious progression of the exercises which you have arranged,” he said, “but I can bring to you the assurances of the love of our dead President, of the affectionate regard of President Johnson. I can assure you that my present visit to California has its origins in the intense desire of myself and of the Government, to learn by our own eyes the conditions, the resources and the necessities of the people of the vast Pacific Empire of the American Republic.”
Of the event itself, a telegram to the Sacramento Morning Union reported: “It is conceded on all hands that the military portion of the procession was by far the finest ever seen here . . . . Judge Dwinelle, at the conclusion of his oration, called upon Colfax to read the message to the miners and people of the Pacific States given him by Abraham Lincoln, which he did, adding a short speech, which was received with great applause. The literary exercises were very successful, but the fireworks entirely unsatisfactory.”
The next day, July 5, Colfax visited an uncle in Petaluma and — keeping his hand in, as it were — while there reportedly gave an unscheduled but stirring speech.
Plans had been made, of course, to show Colfax and company the state’s considerable attractions. “The mint will be revealed to them, and the various asylums and other public institutions and curiosities thrown open to their gaze; and if the Cliff and Ocean Houses, the Bay View Park, and a drive to Thorpe’s behind a spanking team of sorrels, are not shown them, they are cheated of more fun than all the balance of the programme combined can furnish!”
In turn, the visitors spoke for their suppers. On July 9, both Colfax and Bross addressed a San Francisco audience at Platt’s Hall, corner of Bush and Montgomery. The building, the Alta California reported, was “literally jammed.” “We have never seen it so full . . . . The compliment was one which we are sure these gentlemen will appreciate. It was paid not only to them, as the firm friends of California, but as the counsellors of the National Government . . . . Mr. Colfax is an entertaining and fluent speaker, and was frequently and enthusiastically applauded.”
Meantime, Sacramento prepared for his expected return there with something better than the hasty champagne breakfast served on his initial visit: an excursion aboard the Central Pacific Railroad frantically under construction. On July 11, the Sacramento Daily Union published the upcoming agenda:
Schuyler Colfax will arrive in the city this morning by the San Francisco boat. Soon after four o’clock he will leave the city on a special train for Clipper Gap, accompanied by L. Stanford, E. B. Crocker, and C. Crocker. From Clipper Gap the party will proceed to Illinoistown on horseback. At that point they will take the stage for Donner Lake. Returning in a day or two, Colfax will leave Illinoistown for Nevada [City] and Grass Valley, thence to Marysville, thence to Oregon, thence by sea to the place of beginning — San Francisco.
Charlie Crocker’s predominantly Chinese work crews, under the able supervision of James Strobridge, had rails operational as far as Clipper Gap, currently the end of the line. But, wait, here’s an idea! How about naming the next station for Colfax?!
No sooner said than done!
On July 15, the Auburn Placer Herald reported the news:
We learn that the Pacific Railroad Company have purchased a tract of land adjoining Illinoistown, and have this week been surveying it off into lots. The location is a beautiful flat and will make an excellent site for a town . . . . Already has the price of property materially advanced, and many persons are preparing to settle and build in the town. What a change the railroad will make.
Ten days later the Sacramento Morning Union advised readers that surveying for the town of Colfax was complete and lots would be offered for sale on Saturday the 29th.
On that date, Colfax himself, having bestowed his presence upon the citizens of Illinoistown, Dutch Flat, Grass Valley, Nevada City, Marysville, Oroville, Shasta, Yreka, Salem, Portland, Olympia, and Victoria, was aboard the steamship Sierra Nevada arriving in San Francisco in two days.
In his absence, property in the town bearing his name was selling like the proverbial hotcake. “About thirty lots were sold at auction,” the Placer Herald reported. “The lowest price paid for any lot was $100, and the highest price $450. A number of the residents of Folsom were present and purchased lots for business purposes.”
And California hadn’t finished impressing Colfax and company. No sooner had they returned to San Francisco than they were whisked off to the grandest attraction of them all. They must see Yosemite! And off they went, welcomed there by Frederick Law Olmstead, whose campsite they shared, the occasion memorialized by Yosemite’s noted photographer Carleton E. Watkins.
On August 14, returning from Yosemite, Colfax and company stopped at Hornitos. Colfax spoke, then Bross, “a fine stump speaker,” opined the Mariposa Gazette, whose “anecdotes and apt illustrations created much applause.” Between speeches, ladies sang “John Brown” and “Marching through Georgia.” And then the party was off again, taking the late stage to Stockton where they were met by that city’s mayor, visited the Odd Fellows, and partook of a gathering at the Weber House. Their Stockton visit was brief. They were due back in San Francisco for a dinner designed to put all others in the shade, to cap the climax, as it were.
The Chinese knew a thing or two besides how to build a railroad.
“The grand complimentary dinner to Hon. Schuyler Colfax and party,” reported the Alta California of August 18, “tendered by the ‘Six Chinese Companies in California,’ which has been in contemplation for some weeks past, took place last evening at the Hang Heong Restaurant, 808 Clay Street . . . . The hour fixed for the commencement of the dinner was 6 p.m., and at a few minutes past that time the company sat down to the tables. It is, of course, next to impossible to give a description of such a dinner which would be intelligible to those who have never attended one, and to those who have enjoyed that pleasure no description is needed.”
Nor hardly possible. “The dinner proper consisted of 336 dishes, forming 130 courses . . . into the composition of which entered fish, flesh, fowl and vegetable substances, in a thousand forms undreamed of to French cooks and Caucasian house wives generally. . . . As soon as one dish had been passed around and tasted by each guest, it was removed and a new one brought on by the attendants.”
No expense was spared. “Those birds’ nests, by the way,” reported a guest, “are said to cost forty dollars a pound, so that they went very well with the tea, which was served us at an expense of fifty dollars a pound.”
The feast continued to midnight. “More fun than was compressed into those six hours I never remember to have enjoyed in my life,” a privileged diner observed, adding, “it is surprising how good shark’s fins are when well cooked; one feels no compunctions of conscience either in eating them, for it is tolerably certain that were the tables turned they would eat you.”
Guests laughed and joked. “Over those chop-sticks we had rare fun . . . . Think of a party sitting down to eat with knitting needles. One of the guests, however, utterly failed to acquire any dexterity whatever, and so sharpened one of them off, using it as a spear.” The dignified, courteous hosts looked on behind polite smiles. . . . “the wonder which must have filled their minds at the outrageous behavior of the barbarians whom they condescended to entertain . . . . violating every principle, probably, of Chinese etiquette.”
“At the end of the third and last sitting a Committee of the Companies again approached Mr. Colfax and party, and repeating the thanks for the honor of their company, expressed their regret at not being able to furnish a more sumptuous repast. Mr. Colfax replied that the pleasure was all upon his side.”
No rest for the weary as yet. On Sunday, August 20, in San Francisco, Colfax and Bross individually addressed the teachers and scholars of the Sabbath School attached to the First Congregational Church. “At the close of the exercises a little girl from the school gracefully presented to Colfax and Bross copies of ‘Hutchings’ Illustrated Wonders of California.’”
On Tuesday, the 22nd, Colfax was back in Sacramento. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.) of several lodges had arranged a special meeting at which the visiting dignitary consented to officiate in conferring the Degree of Rebekah “for all entitled to it.”
On the 24th, Colfax and company, having returned to San Francisco, visited Mare Island where marines paraded and salutes were fired, followed by “a collation at the Commodore’s residence” and inspection of the sloop-of-war Jamestown. From there the party toured Alcatraz “where they received another salute and partook of another collation.”
On the 25th, San Francisco’s I.O.O.F. members gathered at their hall to present Colfax with “a magnificent gold-headed cane . . . engraved with the emblems of the Order, and scenes from California life, with nine settings of gold bearing quartz from the mines of Mariposa, Virginia City, Amador, Nevada City, Grass Valley, Oroville, Shasta, and other places on this coast.”
Then, finally, after two months in the West, Colfax and company prepared to leave. But of course they must be seen off in style with a ball and banquet at the Occidental Hotel.
The supper will be spread in the spacious halls of the hotel, which will be specially draped for the occasion, the dining-room, decorated with flowers, flags and birds, serving as the ballroom. To enable everyone to attend, the price of tickets has been put down to twenty-five dollars, and to secure comfort as well as elegance, only a limited number of invitations has been issued; so that, taken all in all, it promises to be a most recherche entertainment. Five thousand dollars is to be the total expense of all, and if it be not the very kingpin of all affairs of the kind ever given on this coast the intention of the designers will be frustrated.
On the evening of August 31, a privileged attendance of the state’s most distinguished citizens heard Colfax’s final address:
“Just two months ago, after journeying over thousands of miles of mountains and valleys and deserts and plains, your honored Mayor and a Committee of your Supervisors met us in the cabin of the steamer Chrysopolis, and gave us an official welcome to this seven-hilled city. Since then, in all our travels upon this coast, we have been accustomed to speak of San Francisco as home. And now, though I came here a stranger and a traveler, I feel like one who is indeed about to leave his home and hearthstone . . . .
“Our party came hither to learn, by actual observation, more of this Pacific portion of the republic, its resources and its wants; and you can testify that the grass has not grown under our feet. We have seen your varieties of mining — placer, hydraulic and quartz. We have seen many of your rich agricultural valleys — the Sacramento, San Joaquin, San Jose, Petaluma, Napa, Sonoma, Alameda, and others. We have traveled on nearly every mile of your 200 to 300 miles of railroads, closing with the delightful excursion to-day on the Alameda Railroad. . . .
“We have enjoyed visits to your great natural curiosities, the world-renowned Yosemite Valley . . . . the Big Trees, the Geysers and your neighbors, the sea lions.
“We have examined with interest many of your manufactures, and . . . I am prouder of the suit in which I am clothed to-night, of California cloth, from wool on the back of California sheep, woven by the Mission Woolen Mills, and made here, than of the finest suit of French broadcloth I ever owned.”
When applause abated, Bross expressed his thanks, concluding, “Nowhere have we ever seen hospitality so generous and princely. You have overwhelmed us with kindness.”
Then Richardson rose, adding: “Foremost among my pleasant memories of this pleasant Summer trip will ever be the universal, generous and unbounding hospitalities of the people of California. We have found your hearts as large as your mountains, and as warm as your climate; your kindness as irresistible and searching as the Summer winds of San Francisco — which I think about the strongest comparison in the English language.”
The observation eliciting the laughter he anticipated, Richardson closed the show.
California, at great expense, had done its best to impress. As the steamer Golden City departed for Panama with its well-feted visitors, San Francisco’s Daily Alta California observed: “The visit is one which cannot fail to be productive of much good to the State.”
But, as things turned out, words perhaps more hopeful than predictive. Although Schuyler Colfax’s political star rose prominently in 1869 with his election to vice president under Ulysses Grant, it plummeted in 1873. During his campaign for reelection a Congressional investigation discovered Colfax had accepted shares of stock and cash bribes from Credit Mobilier, a dummy construction company set up by the Union Pacific Railroad. Even worse was the revelation that he had received $4,000 from a contractor who supplied envelopes to the federal government while he was chairman of the Committee on Post Offices and Post Roads.
Colfax’s political career was over. He was left with the lecture circuit.
And California was left with a town called Colfax.
This article is from the California State Library Foundation’s Bulletin #124. For more articles, artwork or information please visit our website www.cslfdn.org
Auburn Placer Herald: July 15, 29, 1865.
Marin County Journal: July 8, 15, 22; August 12, 1865.
Mariposa Gazette: July 15; August 19, 1865.
Marysville Daily Appeal, July 2, 4. 6, 7, 8, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 18, 20, 21; August 2, 4, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 23, 25, 1865.
Petaluma Journal: July 6, 1865.
Red Bluff Independent; July 17; August 3, 1865.
Sacramento Daily Union, July 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 10, 11,12, 15, 17, 19, 20, 24; August 1, 2, 3, 4, 11, 14, 15, 16, 18, 19, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26,28, 29, 30, 31; September 1, 2, 4, 1865.
San Francisco Daily Alta California: July 2, 3, 4,6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13, 15, 16, 30; August 1, 2, 3, 18, 19, 22, 24, 25, 29; September 2, 1865.
Sonoma Democrat: July 5, 8; August 19, 1865.
Sacramento Morning Union: July 7, 9, 13, 14, 21, 25, 28; August 2, 23, 1865.
Weekly Colusa Sun: July 16, 1865.