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click here for a print-friendly version of this pageThe City of Colfax, county seat for Whitman County, is named for Schuyler Colfax, vice president of Ulysses S. Grant. The city’s location is the natural result of the intersection of two rivers and three systems of rails. The first significant industry was logging and lumber milling, but ranching and wheat farming soon followed and a flour mill was added.

The arrival of people to Colfax came relatively late in the settlement of the west, in the late eighteen sixties, by which time Oregon and the Puget Sound had been settled. Colfax was incorporated in 1873. While Colfax failed to get the state land grant college, which ended up in Pullman, it did have the good fortune to be named the county seat. The combination of retail and service businesses and government entities continues to this day.

The topography of the area is a vast region of steep rolling hills whose shape suggested to geologists the name "mammalian," a term more urbanely tasteful than the name given by French trappers to the Grand Tetons in Wyoming. The structure of the hills is called aeolean, meaning formed by wind. The soil type is "loess," specifically Palouse loess. It was blown in as dust off the retreating glaciers from the last ice age, about fifteen thousand years ago. The earth is rich and deep, with top soil up to a hundred feet thick. The system of hills is known as the Palouse Hills and the area as the Palouse.

The Palouse is named after the Palouse Indians, a small tribe indigenous to the region that is affiliated with the Nez Perce tribe. The somewhat romanticized horse breed called the Appaloosa originated with these Indians, hence the name "a palouse"—"of the Palouse."

The first white settlers in the area claimed the vast acres of tall bunch grass as grazing land. Because of the relatively low rainfall (about 16 inches annually) it was not taken seriously as farm land. Only the river bottoms and areas watered by springs were originally cultivated. In the 70s and 80s, influenced by immigrants from Eastern Europe who were familiar with similar climatic conditions, farmers began cultivating the Palouse hills and growing winter wheat, a crop that was planted in the fall and harvested the following summer. The Palouse country had found its destiny. With the development of mechanized farming techniques, the Palouse produces enormous crops and farming units have developed into hundreds and even thousands of acres.

Wheat is now one of Washington State’s largest cash crops. The region is also now a world leader in the production of peas, lentils and barley.

The end of the last glacial period left behind another dramatic feature of terrain. Melting glaciers across the Northwest US and southern Canada filled a vast reservoir of water that covered most of present Montana west of the rocky Mountains which geologists called Primitive Lake Missoula. It is described as the largest body of fresh water that ever existed. The lake was impounded in interior Montana by a glacial ice dam in the present day Idaho Panhandle. When this ice plug broke about fifteen thousand years ago, an epic flood was released. It tore a gash north to south through Washington, following the western side of Whitman County. The force and volume of the water gouged and ripped enormous canyons through the basalt bed rock, leaving what is called the channeled scab lands. A striking and dramatic example of this is Palouse Falls, an easy drive west of Colfax. The water falls over two hundred feet into a cirque surrounded by sheer basaltic canyons. Similar canyon walls are frequent throughout Whitman County. Interspersed with the comfortably rolling Palouse Hills, it is easy to think of this landscape as quintessentially western.

Colfax, in fact, retains a distinctly western character. Its citizens are friendly and have a generally outdoorsy orientation. In season, hunting is popular (deer, pheasant, chukars, partridge) and fishing is a local passion. Besides many lakes with trout, the Snake river is about 20 miles from town where there is year-around fishing.

Colfax is also popular with retirees. It has the small town advantage of quiet and pleasant neighborhoods and the convenience of a hospital and medical center, convalescent center, retirement condominium community and assisted living apartments. There is also a golf course, bowling alley, a number of parks, swimming pool, playing fields and a walking/jogging path. The downtown provides retail stores, legal and service establishments and several restaurants—from Arby’s, Taco Time and Subway to a collection of local restaurants offering pizza, Chinese, Mexican and down home American fare.

Pullman, 16 miles south, is the site of Washington State University and gives Colfax proximity to a large campus with a variety of theatrical, musical and athletic events.

Excerpted from http://www.ci.colfax.wa.u

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