Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Mystery of Colfax

Pore as I might through my large but haphazard collection of Colorado lore, I have yet to find out when Colfax Avenue, which will host a marathon Sunday, got its name. Nor can I find out why, although it’s easy to indulge in some informed speculation.
Back in the pioneer days, our hard- working, independent, self-reliant, geographic forebears wanted help from the federal government. And they figured that naming something after a prominent politician would help.
Breckenridge is a good example. It started out as a little gold-placer camp along the Blue River named Fort Meribeh, probably derived from the first woman in town, known to history only as “Mary B.”
In 1859, it was impossibly remote. If the place was going to amount to anything, it needed a road. There was considerable dissension in Washington about the federal government’s role in “internal improvements” then. Southern Democrats in general were opposed and cited lack of constitutional authority, while Whigs and then Republicans supported federal action.
But all sections and parties agreed that the Constitution specifically granted Congress the power “To establish post offices and post roads.” So if Fort Meribeh could get the federal government to give it a post office, then the “post road” would follow, and the isolated little camp on the easternmost fringe of Utah Territory would have a connection to the civilized world.
How to get the post office? Change the town’s name to that of a prominent politician, whose ego would inspire him to spin the wheels of government in the proper direction. And so, the prospectors named their camp for the vice president of the United States. Only 36 when inaugurated in 1857, John Cabell Breckinridge of Kentucky was the youngest man ever to hold the position.
The place got a post office and a postal road over Hoosier Pass in 1860. The next year, though, the residents changed the spelling of its name to Breckenridge because Breckinridge had joined the Confederate Army as a general. He eventually became the Confederacy’s last secretary of war.
Given that response in one part of Colorado, it’s kind of surprising that “the longest street in America” that connects Aurora to Lakewood through Denver hasn’t been renamed.
It was named for Schuyler Colfax, an Indiana politician who began his public career as a newspaperman, first as a legislative correspondent for the Indiana State Journal, then as publisher of the St. Joseph Valley Register in South Bend. Like Abraham Lincoln, he was initially a Whig who became a Republican, and was elected to Congress in 1854. From 1863 to 1869, he was speaker of the House of Representatives. Colfax was Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s running mate in 1868, and served as vice president from 1869 to 1873.
So it was probably sometime between 1863 and 1873 that his name got put on a major Denver thoroughfare. He visited the city in 1865, 1868 and 1873. Little- known Denver pioneer Daniel Witter, who owned considerable real estate near the city, was the federal tax assessor. (Colorado was a territory then, so all the good political jobs resulted from federal patronage.)
Witter’s wife, Clara, was Colfax’s step-sister, and as one city history recounts, they wanted to make sure he enjoyed his trip to Colorado. “Anxious to please the goose who laid the golden egg of a federal job, the Witters paid $2.50 a dozen for eggs when Colfax visited in 1868 so that, as Clara explained to her children, ‘brother Schuyler could have his boiled egg for breakfast.”‘
In 1872, Colfax wanted another term as vice-president, but the Republicans denied him the nomination even while giving Grant another term. That was because Colfax was implicated in the Credit Mobilier scandal.
In short, the Union Pacific Railroad got federal subsidies for its construction in the late 1860s. Most of the money went to the Credit Mobilier construction company, which took a lot of money off the top (one estimate puts it at $21 million out of the $47 million the UP received). Its shares were thus quite valuable, and favored politicians could buy Credit Mobilier stock at face value, rather than the much higher market value.
Thus ended the political career of Schuyler Colfax. But his name lives on, even though no one seems to know just what political favor Colfax performed in exchange for getting his name on Colorado’s most prominent street, nor why no one felt enough shame over the scandal to propose renaming it.
Ed Quillen of Salida (ed@cozine.com) is a former newspaper editor whose column appears Tuesday and Sunday.

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