Offbeat Colorado Road Trips: Driving the Length of Colfax Avenue

Colfax Avenue.

For Denverites, reading those two words elicits immediate images and feelings about the place. It definitely does for me. 

I want to invite you to do something you’ve probably never done before on Colfax Avenue. No, it won’t leave your nostrils white. Before I tell you what that something is, we must start at the beginning.

What may or may not be the longest street in America (online debate rages), Colfax Avenue is indisputably long, stretching 50 miles end to end and cutting through the belly of Denver. The thoroughfare changes names along its expanse, also serving as Highway 40, Business Route I-70, Highway 287, and 15th Avenue at various segments.

Its value as a corridor began soon after the founding of Denver. Records from the spring of 1859 reference the western portion of the road as a direct route of service for those headed to and from the mountains during the Colorado Gold Rush. To the east, it served as a gateway from Kansas to the Rockies. 

A man named Schuyler

The road’s namesake, Schuyler Colfax, traveled through the Front Range in the late 1860s via stagecoach. As a Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, Colfax originated from Indiana. He won over the hearts and minds of Coloradoans not only with his charm and eloquence but potentially also his message of antislavery.

So, we slapped his name on one of the main drags.

Mr. Colfax’s colorful political career peaked during his term as Vice President under Ulysses S. Grant. The Hoosier lost out on a second run due to implication in the Crédit Mobilier scandal, during which he was caught accepting bribes from the Union Pacific Railroad in exchange for political favor during the push for construction of the first transcontinental railroad.

Schuyler denied any wrongdoing though decided to never run for office again.

He stayed in the public eye by reinventing himself as a traveling lecturer, his most popular speech one that detailed an intimate knowledge of Abraham Lincoln. The two had spent a fair degree of time together in the political arena; Lincoln had even extended Colfax an invitation to the Ford Theater the night of his assassination, which he declined.

One long jacket

The history of Colfax Avenue is not so different from the man whose name has garnished the street for so long: bright, sparkly neon intermingled with humanity’s more undesirable elements. It’s not been all bad or all good but rather a steady ebb and flow certainly worth historic value.

The typical consensus divvies the road into two parts, East and West Colfax.

East Colfax sprouted when the city’s elite built themselves lavish mansions on the outskirts of town with fortunes acquired from newly discovered mineral wealth. After the silver crash of 1893, these elaborate homes were no longer financially maintainable, and families moved away.

Myopic redevelopments in the 1950s and 60s demolished many historic buildings in favor of the creation of something that felt like one long strip mall—alternating businesses and parking lots lacking architectural attractiveness and any orientation toward community.

Crime intensified when the urban renewal plan relocated the poor to affordable housing projects on East Colfax. The state, following the closure of institutions because of civil rights activism, also purchased dirt-cheap mansions to house the mentally ill. Patients once locked up began to roam the street freely. The reputation of East Colfax continued to decline until it was earmarked as dangerous place where folks were advised not to visit.

The west side

On the west side of the avenue, a regional Jewish sanitorium moved in around the turn of the century to treat tuberculosis patients. Many folks were seen there free of charge. The Golden Hill Cemetery accommodated those who had come seeking relief but ultimately lost their fight with the disease.

As the center of Lakewood, West Colfax boomed with continued urban development during the decades of car culture. Numerous diners, auto dealerships, and motels established themselves along the street, forming a neon delight of commercial businesses that came alive after dark. Major department stores were also drawn to the area. Shopping centers went in.

However, the west section of Colfax eventually fell into the same scenario as its eastern counterpart. Street-level prostitution rampaged along on the entire stretch, solidifying the repute of Colfax Avenue as the place for sex, drugs, and crime.

References to its gritty character pervaded popular culture. Folks like Jack Kerouac and Trey Parker didn’t need an ounce of imagination to come up with a street as sordid as Colfax—it delivered on its very own, alluded to in books like On the Road and episodes of South Park.

In an odd twist of fate, Schuyler Colfax predicted the street’s personality in his 1878 biography:

“[L]et Colfax Way be a den of avarice, a cauldron of covetousness, a peccadillo wharf in a sea-storm of morality. Let not a man walk Colfax Way and wonder, ‘Where shall I deposit my virility this eve, where may I encounter mine intoxicant?’ for he shall find all he seeks on Colfax.”

Colfax today

Things are slowly improving on the street. Many interesting and worthwhile landmarks claim their residence on Colfax Avenue, including the capitol building, Casa Bonita, and East High School, to name only a few. Pockets of renewal pop up every day as this historic thoroughfare reinvents itself into its next version, much like Schuyler Colfax himself.

An experience driving the length of Colfax Avenue is truly the best way to get a sense of its overarching themes.

I know this because I did it for the first time last weekend.

Before then, I judged Colfax Avenue harshly from brief encounters to visit venues along its address. Living one block away from it also didn’t help. Having spent many days riding the RTD 15 (the most highly trafficked of all Denver’s bus routes), I vowed to myself I would never again set foot on that bus, with its smells, noises, and sticky glaze of chaos.

Driving Colfax Avenue is an entirely different experience—a quite pleasant one. It delivers a cross-section of the state that encapsulates all western landscapes, from plains to urban center to mountains. In a mere 50 miles, you get a real taste for both the city of Denver and the state of Colorado. Especially when the trip is accompanied by the melody of your favorite song.

 

There are some natives who have very fond feelings for Colfax Ave. The Barbers are two of them, co-founders of fascinating website colfaxavenue.com, a virtual homage to all things Colfax. And I mean all things. 

I dare say the outing now ranks among my most memorable scenic drives. There’s an edginess to it, a sense of nostalgic charm and glittery spectacle awash in fluctuating scenery. Delinquency and opulence cohabitating together. It’s a road trip that humbles you and shows you everything without holding back.

It’s raw and real.

And I guarantee it will provoke memories for those who have lived in the area for any length of time. Experience it for yourself and see just what this adventure has to offer you.

 

References

Colfax Avenue. In Wikipedia. Retrieved Mar 12, 2018.

History of Colfax Avenue. Retrieved Mar 12, 2018, from www.colfaxavenue.com.

Schuyler Colfax. In Wikipedia. Retrieved Mar 12, 2018.

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