The Tragic Life and Cold Death of Schuyler Colfax

Schuyler ColfaxSchuyler Colfax. (Photo: Library of Congress)

On January 14, 1885, the New York Times carried a headline that read “Schuyler Colfax Dead; He Drops Down in a Railway Station.” While this would be a sad headline to describe anyone’s death, it was made a bit more awful by the fact that Schuyler Colfax was a former Vice President of the United States and Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Schuyler Colfax, Jr. was born in New York City on March 23, 1823. His father died of tuberculosis five months before Schuyler was born; his sister, Mary, died four months after his birth. The young Schuyler attended school only until he was ten, then began working to support his family. He never attended any kind of secondary school or college. His mother remarried when Colfax was thirteen, and the family moved to New Carlisle, Indiana. By the time he was twenty-two, Colfax was the editor and owner of a pro-Whig newspaper. He was elected to Congress in 1854 and joined the Republicans after the Whig party unraveled. Solidly anti-slavery, his colleagues elected Colfax as Speaker of the House in 1863. Sadly, his election came soon after the death of his wife, Evelyn. The couple had no children.

In 1868, Republicans selected General Ulysses S. Grant as their presidential candidate. Grant had no political background, and Colfax was placed on the ticket in part because of his experience. Grant and Colfax cruised to victory in November 1868, and just two weeks later Colfax remarried, this time to Ellen Wade (niece of Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade). Their only child, son Schuyler Colfax III, was born in 1870.

The Credit Mobilier scandal broke in 1872, just as Grant and Colfax were gearing up for their reelection campaign. Colfax was one of the many influential political figures suspected of accepting shares of stock and cash bribes from Credit Mobilier, a dummy construction company set up by the Union Pacific Railroad. Other notable figures investigated included Senators Roscoe Conkling of New York, William Allison of Iowa, John Logan of Illinois, James Bayard of Delaware, and Henry Wilson of Massachusetts. Grant was less popular in 1872 than he had been four years earlier, and many Republicans worried that having Colfax on the ticket would harm the President’s reelection chances. They dumped Colfax from the ticket – only to replace him with the also-tainted Wilson.

After his inglorious departure from the vice presidency, Colfax traveled the country as a popular lecturer, often speaking about his interactions with Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War. On the morning of January 13, 1885, he arrived in Mankato, Minnesota on a train from Milwaukee. Mankato was just a stop for Colfax; he was trying to get to Iowa for a speaking engagement. The Omaha Line Depot from which the next leg of his journey would depart was about three-quarters of a mile away. Despite a reported temperature of thirty degrees below zero, Colfax walked from one station to the other. Upon arriving at the Omaha Line Depot, Colfax entered the waiting room, looked at a map on the wall, sat down, and died. No one in the station knew who the dead man was until they searched his pockets and found a letter with his name on it. His death was likely caused by a heart attack brought on by the physical exertion of walking almost a mile in extreme cold. Colfax was only sixty-one when he died.

Schuyler Colfax’s life is a study in both tragedy and success. His father died before he was born, yet he rose to become a business owner and Congressman. His wife died young, and he became Speaker of the House. He was elected Vice President of the United States and remarried, then watched Credit Mobilier destroy his career. He rebuilt his reputation and commanded speaking fees as high as $2,500, then dropped dead in a lonely Minnesota train station.

Today, few Americans are aware that anyone named Schuyler Colfax ever lived, much less served as Vice President of the United States. In this era in which officeholders are often treated as celebrities, imagine how surprised people would be to learn that a former vice president died cold, alone, and unrecognized in a train station 130 years ago. Before twenty-four-hour news channels, smart phones, and social media, it was possible for public figures like Colfax to live – and die – in relative obscurity.

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin Todd Arrington is a career historian living in Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studies American political history with an emphasis on the Civil War era and the early Republican Party.

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6 Comments

  1. Nice story on a colorful and significant politician. But the theme that he died alone and in obscurity would apply to the vast majority of members of Congress and vice presidents, even in the age of smart phones. Most people still cannot name their senators or representatives, and vice presidents are usually forgotten quickly unless they become president.

  2. Still, it’s such a cool story (oops– pun not intended). This guy was THE mover and shaker for so many years, and then he died in such obscurity they had to check his pockets for his name. Kind of makes it hit home how little we take with us, and where to put our priorities….

  3. Great article. Colfax also did something that speakers of the House didn’t often do then: he came down to vote for the amendment when he was presiding officer. He also was one of the last political figures to talk to Lincoln that fateful day, I believe.

  4. That’s interesting, Mike. I’m used to thinking of him as sort of a corrupt dealer all the time. Forget that he was a good guy on occasion, too.

  5. Mr. Benjamin Todd Arrington wrote an interesting account of a Vice President who died in service to his country. It is not surprising that he may have been involved in whatever degree in the political scandal. Different century, same possible dishonesty as often occurred in the two following centuries. Not likely to end any time soon. But now it’s God save planet Earth. NamVetPoet

  6. Vice President Colfax came through the California Gold Country on the train. It stopped and he spoke from the back of the caboose to the assembly of townspeople. A name for this mining/railroad town hadn’t been chosen so they decided to call it Colfax after the first political figure who had deemed it important enough to visit. Today, the historic depot has been restored and a small park next to the tracks developed. In it in full view is a statue of Schuyler Colfax. The researchers assigned to be sure he was a man of good character decided he had definitely redeemed himself of any the questionable accusations that might have been made of him.

    Given this story, it is amazingly fitting that he be honored by a mountain railroad town in California where he has been given a warm reception. However, it also gets some snow in winter so at times his statue is snow covered. Most of our internet connection in surrounding valleys comes via colfaxnet so he has up to date honor as well. Many times when I talk to someone on the phone while I’m doing business, I’ve had to mention Colfax by town or e-mail address so say he was President Grant’s Vice President and tell them the story of how the town was named.

    So if you are driving on I-80 from Sacramento, CA to Reno, NV, at about the halfway point, you will find Colfax. Near the offramp, you’ll find MacDonald’s and Starbucks. Follow the road into town and you find an historical village with restored railroad station and Schuyler Colfax standing in honor. .

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