After many years of planning and renovation, the Colfax Passenger Depot is just about ready to open its doors to visitors and train passengers alike. It has been a true labor of love for the many volunteers and history buffs who contributed thousands of hours to the resurrection of this California "nugget."
Built in 1905, the depot served Southern Pacific Railroad passengers traveling through the Sierra via Colfax, a major train hub for the region for both freight and passenger traffic. It was a main stop for the Nevada County Narrow Gauge Railroad, which connected Grass Valley/Nevada City to Colfax until 1942 when that line ceased operations. The depot also housed a Western Union office in the early 1900s and Wells Fargo (later Railway Express) occupied a building nearby.
In 1918, there were 16 scheduled passenger trains per day stopping in Colfax. By 1942, that number had dwindled to 10, including trains with names like the Challenger, Pacific Limited and the City of San Francisco. But, as roads improved and automobile travel increased, railroad passenger travel decreased. In 1971, Amtrak took over the operation of many passenger train operations, including Southern Pacific's Donner Pass route. Amtrak's Zephyr train, providing service between Chicago and Sacramento, did not stop in Colfax until 1976, when trans-continental passenger trains began picking up and dropping off passengers again in this small city.
But Amtrak did not staff a station in Colfax and passengers on the Zephyr had to board from an asphalted platform near the old depot, which had become office and storage space for Southern Pacific crews. There was no enclosed shelter or amenities available and nowhere to purchase train tickets on-site.
Interest in renovating the old depot increased in the 1990s, when the Capitol Corridor commuter service between Sacramento and the Bay Area expanded to include an overnight turnaround in Colfax. Southern Pacific deeded the depot to the City of Colfax, so it could be used as a transportation center. Unfortunately, ridership dwindled on the commuter train and service to Colfax ended.
With the depot now in city hands, the Placer County Transportation and Planning Agency designed a multi-use facility centered around it. That design was completed in 1999, but funding was an issue and the project was downsized. Phase 1 of the project, completed in 2003, required that the original depot be lifted off its old foundation while a new slab was poured. A new roof and earthquake code retrofitting, sidewalks and a new passenger-boarding platform were added, and a local businessman donated labor and materials to repair and paint the exterior of the building in its unique historically accurate colors.
Community interest in the depot favored using the building as a museum, visitor center and passenger waiting area, and in 2004, the City of Colfax dedicated $75,000 in city parks funds to help complete renovations. The Placer-Sierra Railroad Heritage Society agreed to oversee the project and work began on the interior of the building later that fall. In addition, the United Auburn Indian Communities have supported the project with a $50,000 grant and the city received a $49,000 National Park Service Save America's Treasures grant to help fund the depot's rebirth.
On November 5, 2005, the Colfax Area Heritage Museum opened inside the train depot, using much of the original tongue-and-groove walls and ceilings. The museum room features original paint colors, an operational door on the freight side of the tracks, period lighting and fixtures and oak laminate flooring, distressed to look like the original. On display are contents of the original Colfax pharmacy, Native American and Chinese artifacts, the historic photography and equipment of Grace Hubley Jones, and antiques galore, representing Colfax's past. Museum Director Helen Weyland says the contents preserve the history of the region for all to see.
"This is the story of our area here, starting with the Indians thousands of years ago," Weyland said. "Then we have the Chinese story, then we go on to the mining and the fruit and the little trading posts. We're trying to let visitors know how difficult it was in California, how we were isolated. It was hard to get supplies, and the people survived." Colfax's museum won a 2006 California Governor's Award For Historical Preservation, one of only seven given, Weyland added.
The 100-year old building will also house the Colfax Chamber of Commerce, a visitor's center and a waiting room. "Historic railroad stuff" will be on display and plans include adding an old-fashioned telegrapher's office, according to Weyland. An Amtrak ticket machine and food vendors may also be added to the facility.
Colfax Mayor Sharon Gieras says the new "old" train depot will be a welcome addition to historic Colfax. "We have been working on this for four years and we are thrilled," Gieras said. "It is going to make a difference in our downtown." Gieras said a plan to provide overnight accommodations for train passengers is "one of our main priorities, that's our number one priority." She also hopes that Amtrak will resume the commuter train service to Colfax. Currently the Zephyr train stops twice each day in Colfax just after noon, once for each direction of travel.
The official opening of the Colfax Passenger Depot is slated for sometime in the spring, but the museum is open Wednesdays from 9am-12pm, until the depot is finished, when it will be open seven days a week. More information is available by calling the Colfax Chamber at 530-346-8888, or Weyland at 530-346-7040.