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Colfax Sesquicentennial 2014: When the railroad came to town

By LeAnn R. Ralph

COLFAX —  In honor of the Colfax Sesquicentennial celebration in July of 2014, the Colfax Messenger will be publishing articles about Colfax history from time to time.

The stories are compiled from materials provided by Colfax historian Troy Knutson.

Here is the second installment.

Part 2: When the railroad came to town … 

 Although there were settlers living in the Colfax area in the 1860s, and the first settler in what is indisputably part of the Village of Colfax now was John D. Simons, who settled on land at the junction of the Red Cedar River and Eighteen Mile Creek in 1865, the railroad did not come to Colfax until 1884.

According to an article published in the Dunn County News on July 16, 1884, the day that the Wisconsin Railroad line was completed, on July 11, was celebrated as a holiday in Colfax.

According to an article published in the Colfax Messenger on May 1, 1986, in 1885, people could ride the train from Wheeler to Colfax for 37 cents, or from Colfax to Chippewa Falls and back for $1.25.

Wisconsin Central built the first train station in Colfax between 1885 and 1890. The depot burned down in 1899, and a new depot was built. After 1910, the depot was moved closer to Main Street where it still stands today, directly south of the railroad tracks.

A sandstone depot was built on the site of the previous depot and is now the home of the Colfax Railroad Museum.

Part of the sandstone depot was destroyed during the June 4, 1958, tornado that hit Colfax early in the evening.

After the rail line was completed in Colfax in 1884, farmers no longer had to haul their crops to Rusk to ship them out by train.

By the early 1900s, Colfax had become a major potato-growing area. At one point, 37 rail cars of potatoes were shipped out of Colfax in one day, with an average shipment of 20 cars per day during the potato-harvest season.

At the height of the potato-growing era, about a thousand carloads of potatoes were shipped from Colfax every year.

A starch factory built in 1900 operated on the west side of Colfax on the bank of the Red Cedar River to process some of the potatoes into starch.

During the first year of operation, the factory reportedly processed 80,000 bushels of potatoes into starch.

According to “Halfway Between Here and There: The Colfax Story” (1997 Wisconsin History Class), the starch factory was built by A.R. Hall of River Falls and paid 10 cents to 20 cents per bushel for surplus potatoes.

The starch factory ceased operating when farmers were able to get better prices for their potatoes by shipping them to other markets.

“After ten years, the business was closed because the high price paid for potatoes made starch production unprofitable,” according to “Halfway Between Here and There.”

Before the railroad came to Colfax, the village developed on the north side of town. Once the railroad came through, development spread south, and Main Street became the primary business district.

The year that the railroad came through town in 1884 was the same year that Peter Running opened the first hardware store in Colfax.