No thoroughfare in Colorado is more famous than Colfax. As a vital part of America’s first coast-to-coast road, US Route 40, Colfax Avenue occupies 50 miles of the National Road envisioned by Gen. George Washington.
Learning about Colfax is a journey back to America’s founding. Exploring Schuyler Colfax, Jr., and his namesake avenue, provides profound entertainment, education and perhaps lessons for our future.
Gen. Philip Schuyler, a Washington ally, was a Revolutionary War bigwig. This famous founding father sired 15 children, and became New York’s first U.S. senator. Schuyler’s daughter, Elizabeth, married Alexander Hamilton, as dramatized in Lin Manuel Miranda’s masterpiece musical.
Capt. William Colfax was a bonafide Revolutionary War superstar. Like Hamilton, Colfax was a trusted right-hand man for Washington. Colfax led the famous Commander-in-Chief’s Guard, dedicated to protecting Washington’s life at all costs.
Following Hamilton’s brilliant Yorktown victory, Colfax and Washington rode on horseback to accept Cornwallis’ surrender. Despite having been wounded three times, Colfax survived and thrived. After the war, Colfax married Schuyler’s first-cousin, Hester. They had six children, including Schuyler Colfax Sr.
Schuyler Colfax Jr., born on March 23, 1823, would be elected America’s 25th Speaker of the House (1863), and then 17th Vice President (1869), under President Grant.
Colfax, an avowed abolitionist, played a critical role passing the 13th Amendment, as memorialized in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning movie, Lincoln. After Honest Abe was assassinated, Colfax frequently traveled to Denver to emphasize Lincoln’s fervent desire for Colorado to join the Union.
Colfax must have sufficiently impressed somebody; Denver renamed its grandest east-west avenue, previously known as Golden or Grand, to Colfax. The name stuck.
Colorado’s Capitol is at Colfax and Lincoln, which could hardly be coincidental. From its west steps, you can look down Colfax toward Denver’s City and County Building, the U.S. Mint, Denver’s newest and oldest criminal courthouses and Denver’s old West Side.
Generations ago, my ancestors huddled along West Colfax. Silverman grandparents lived at 1437 Quitman, with Tobin Pharmacy, now Tobin Liquors, on the Colfax corner. This drugstore had a soda fountain with copious amounts of ice cream, candy and baseball cards. As a kid, it seemed like heaven to me.
Also heavenly was the Apple Tree Shanty on East Colfax with outstanding barbecue ribs and gigantic baked potatoes. I have wonderful memories of my grandparents’ 40th anniversary dinner at Pierre Wolf’s Quorum on East Colfax across from the Capitol.
I’ve consumed countless calories at Colfax restaurants, especially at Greek diners, many owned and operated by the late Pete Contos, a Colfax legend. Pete’s Kitchen lives on. Late last week, I had a fantastic breakfast there with Colfax’s biggest booster.
Over 25 years ago, Jonny Barber fell in love simultaneously with his wife, Anistacia, Denver and Colfax. An accomplished musician and Elvis impersonator, Barber performed at the Lion’s Lair Lounge before moving up the Colfax musical entertainment ladder.
Paid gigs followed at the Bluebird, Ogden and Fillmore. However, Barber’s best stories come from the Satire Lounge, where Jack Kerouac, the Smothers Brothers and Bob Dylan hung out.
Memorializing Colfax has become Barber’s mission. As the founder and curator of the Colfax Avenue Museum, Barber collects endless information and Colfax artifacts. Discouraged a few years ago by location complexities, Barber received great pandemic news when History Colorado set its eyes on his Colfax memorabilia.
Accompanying Barber post-breakfast burrito to Colorado’s most impressive modern history museum was awesome. Barber and Colfax have hit the cultural major leagues, albeit on Broadway, and the artifacts represent only 25% of Barber’s collection.
Forty Years On the ‘Fax, displayed now at History Colorado, is extremely entertaining. It’s pure anodyne nostalgia and education. Big smiles emerge as visitors remember favorite venues. How appropriate since the good natured former VP, Schuyler Colfax Jr., was nicknamed “The Smiler.”
But Colfax has a seedy side with sex, drugs, poverty and plenty of liquor. Frequently described as “the longest, wickedest street in America,” Colfax is all too often newsworthy for terrible reasons.
Sections of Colfax have always been sketchy. Crime on Colfax is a major problem. Eli Saslow’s recent Washington Post story “Anger and Heartbreak on Bus No. 15,” is a damning recounting of grotesqueries on RTD’s Colfax line. Crime on Colfax too regularly breaks our heart. Too many people shot dead like Lincoln and Hamilton.
“If you study Colfax enough, you learn something about everything,” Barber told me. “If I can educate people about what I know and have learned about Colfax, hopefully that will rub off, and they’ll love it, too, and that will help fix some of these other problems with the crime … if people really have more of a pride.”
Barber would love to see his entire Colfax Museum in a suitable building on Colfax, near Lincoln. The history of Schuyler Colfax Jr. and US40 would be heavily highlighted.
Public safety on Colfax must be prioritized. For all the shining examples of progress on Colfax from Colorado Mills to CU-Anschutz, and modern attractions like the Colfax Marathon and a refurbished Casa Bonita, we cannot unabashedly celebrate Colfax until crime is curbed.
Colfax without crime would surely make us smile.
Craig Silverman is a former Denver chief deputy DA. Craig is columnist at large for The Colorado Sun and an active Colorado trial lawyer with Craig Silverman Law, LLC. He also hosts The Craig Silverman Show podcast.