John and Daniel Murphy arrived in California in 1844 as members of the Stevens-Townsend party, the first immigrant party to bring wagons across the Sierra Nevada to Sutter’s Fort. The brothers made their living as traders for several years, but turned to prospecting after they heard of Marshall’s discovery on the American River.
Luck was with the Murphy boys. After working a few months on the placers they discovered at Murphys Old Diggings (later known as Vallecito), the two made their way north up Coyote Creek, finally arriving in a small valley which would soon be known as Murphys Camp. They weren’t the first on the scene, as a man named Staudenberg and a small party of miners had worked the area before their arrival. It wasn’t until the Murphys arrived; however, that the place came to be known by any established name. Originally Murphys New Diggings, that was followed by Murphys Rich Diggings, Murphys Flat, Murphys Camp, and finally, Murphys. The year was 1848.
The placers at Murphys were among the richest of any in Calaveras County. The dirt was so rich that claims were limited to a mere eight feet square, enlargeable to eight by twelve if you took in a partner. It didn’t take long for the miners working the creeks and streams to become spoiled, complaining if a pan only yielded an ounce of gold, since many claims paid four or five ounces to the pan when mining on what was called the lava ledge. An uncommonly good pan could yield as much as sixteen ounces of gold, which no doubt prompted a Eureka or two. Many fortunes were made in Murphys. One winter, more than $5 million in gold was taken from a four-acre placer located just south of Murphys Hotel. During a ten-year period from the 1850’s to the 1860’s, the Wells Fargo office shipped $15 million worth of gold from their Murphys office. Murphys was rich.
The Murphy brothers opened a trading post soon after they arrived which reportedly did better than many of the claims, some days saw as much as $400 in gold dust being traded for food and supplies. Although only twenty-three years of age, John Murphy had a way with the local Indians and was very successful in getting them to mine for him. An early report describes his operations: “The camp of Mr. Murphy is in the midst of a small tribe of wild Indians who gather gold for him and receive in return provisions and blankets. He knocks down two bullocks a day to furnish meat. They respect his person and property in part due to the fact that he has married the daughter of the chief.” John Murphy left camp in December of 1849, never to return. He didn’t have to. When he left, he had more gold than any man on the Pacific Coast, somewhere between $1.5 and $2 million. An excerpt from Reminiscences of ’48, which appeared in the San Andreas Independent in 1858, provides a clue as to how he amassed his fortune in so short a time: “Only a few days previous to our arrival an Indian had found a five-pound lump of gold for which Murphy had given him a blanket.”
The camp didn't miss him. Business was booming. Some fifty tents, numerous lean-tos, and two or three block houses had been built to house the typical mining camp enterprises. In addition, two doctors by the names of Brown and Wilson had set up practice, treating the miners' ailments with homemade and patent remedies. Three American and four French dining rooms provided culinary respite from bacon and beans, and twenty gambling tables and as many "bars" as there were tents made their play for the miners' gold. An Alcalde, sheriff, and constable were elected, to try and keep some semblance of law and order as th easy riches soon brought in an element much different from those who had originally settle the camp. Gamblers,thieves, prostitutes, and opportunists came to mine the mienrs, who often proved easy prey. After standing in icy water from morning to night, working with pick, shovel, and pan in canyons where the temperature often reached over one hundred degrees, it's no wonder the miners were eager for a nigth in town, in other workds, whiskey, women, wagering. It was teh rare miner who still had some of his week's earnings after Friday and Saturday night.
By 1850, Murphy’s population had reached twelve hundred. A post office of sorts had been established, with a carrier appointed to travel to San Francisco once a month for mail. The miners shipped a large amount of gold with him, until one day he gave in to the temptation and lit out with the dust. A stage line began to make regular stops and the town kept growing. By 1852, the population had reached an estimated three thousand, which included fifteen families.
Murphys was troubled at times by a lack of enough water to work the rich placers, so in 1851 the Union Water Company was organized by local miners to bring in water from the Stanislaus River, located fifteen miles away. The aqueduct was completed in January of 1853, and when the waters reached Murphys, the mining activity increased even more.
During its peak, Murphys was home to perhaps several thousand inhabitants. There were more than five hundred wood frame buildings, several restaurants, eight saloons, a bowling alley, a cider and syrup factory, dance halls, bawdy houses, butcher shops, two steam-powered sawmills, bakeries, carpenters, blacksmiths, a livery stable, church, school, express office and a bank. And up until August 20 of 1859, the town was able to avoid destruction by fire. As reported in the San Andreas Independent on August 27, 1859:
“The fire commenced in the Magnolia Saloon, situated near the west end of town, and surrounded by wooden buildings that would ignite and burn as readily as so many hay stacks. The Magnolia was used as a fandango House and was tenanted by some disreputable Mexican women at the time, one of whom is suspected, acted the incendiary, in revenge for some harsh treatment she had received.
The entire business part of town with the exception of Traver’s store, Renaud & Met’s bakery and a building opposite the latter, occupied as a retail liquor establishment, was swept away in less than forty minutes. In fifteen minutes from the discovery of the fire, over thirty houses were in flames. So rapid was the communication that no time was allowed to save personable movables. The total loss foots up about $100,000.”
The miners weren’t going anywhere as long as the placers were still producing, and if the miners were staying, so were the businessmen. The town was rebuilt as quickly as possible, and many took a lesson from the fire and rebuilt with brick or stone. It proved to be well they did, as another two serious fires would hit the town before the turn of the century. In June of 1874, practically all of the business section of town was once again burned to the ground, the only buildings surviving being those of fire-proof construction. This fire originated in Doyle’s fruit store, and when it was finally contained the flames had destroyed about thirty buildings. By this time the placer mines were long since exhausted and as there was little interest in rebuilding what had been lost, the camp never regained its boomtown appearance. The last great fire began on a hot afternoon in July of 1893, when smoke was discovered coming from a warehouse located behind the Manuel-Garland store. Moments later, five-gallon cans of kerosene stored inside began to explode and people rushed to try and put out the fire, until a cry went out that black powder was also in the building. Citizens scattered as the powder exploded, sending burning shingles high into the air, which then set fire to the surrounding buildings. The block to the east was totally destroyed, except for the stone Wells Fargo office. Luckily, no one was injured by the explosion or fire.
Murphys is located two miles east of Douglas Flat via Hwy 4. The camp still maintains a strong mining days feel, as a dozen or so Gold Rush era buildings line its narrow Main Street, shaded by tall locust trees. The winding side streets contains several historic sites also.
A Stone Monument located at the corner of Main and Jones is a good place to start a walking tour of old Murphys, as many of the town's historic spots are situated nearby.
The Cademartori Store dates back to 1878. Bernardo Besso built the stone portion of the building, making the walls over twenty-inches thick and placing six inches of clay between the ceiling and roof to protect the building from fire. Besso sold cigars, liqour and groceries here for many years before selling the store to Sebastian Solari who added the wooden portion of the structure for living quarters. An employee named John Cademartori later purchased the store from Solari. It stands at 339 Main Street.
The Orengo/Segal Store, a neat little stone building with iron doors and shutters, was constructed some time after the disastrous fire of 1859, and obviously with fire-proofing in mind.Its existence today shows how effective this method of construction was against most fires. Legend has it that one of th early owners was so worried about thieves, that when he left he would set up a shotgun aimed at the front door, rigged so that any intruder would be shot while the owner was out on the town. The story goes that one night after having a bit too much to drink, he returned, and forgetting about the booby-trap, opened the door and was hit with the shotgun blast. The store is located at 419 Main Street.
The Dunbar/Fisk Saloon was built shortly after the 1859 fire. The stone-walled, wood-front building first housed a salon and at one time had a bowling alley. It also served as a store and post office. It can be found at 425 Main Street.
Murphys Hotel is the most striking structure left from the days of gold. This classic example of MotherLode architecture - iron shutters, wrought-iron balconies, and stone construction - still shelters, feeds, and waters weary travelers as it did when it opened for business on August 20th of 1856. Built by James L. Sperry and John Perry, the place was first known as the Sperry and Perry Hotel. Thought to be fire-proof, the hotel burned in the fire of 1859. Sperry and Perry started on a new building almost immediately and the new hotel was finished in time for the spring travel of 1860. The new Sperry and Perry Hotel was considered one of the finest hotels outside of San Francisco, and due to its location near several tourist spots, was host to many famous people over the years. A photocopy of the old resister is available at the desk and a look through its pages will reveal such names as: Mark Twain, U.S. Grant, John Bidwell, C.E. Bolton (alias Black Bart), Henry Ward Beecher, Horatio Alger, J.P. Morgan and Thomas Lipton. The hotel was later purchased by Henry Atwood who operated it for a short time in 1881. Atwood sold out to Harvey Blood, who later sold out to C.P. Mitchler in Septemeber of 1882. The Mitchler family operated the hotel for many years, during which time it was called the Mitchler Hotel, eventually becoming the Murphys Hotel. Note the bullet holes in the old iron doors of the saloon.
The Bonnet/Compere Building has been converted into what must be one of the most unique homes in all of California. Built of rhyloite blocks and limestone rubble by Pierre Bonnet in 1858, this beautiful structure was originally used as a provision store by Victorene Compere who supplied the mners with tools, clothing and food in exchange for gold. It was restored and remodeled into a private residence in 1939. It is located at 570 Main Street. Be sure to cross the street and visit the burros.
The Thorpe Bakery was built in 1851 and opened as a miners' supply store with a stock of tools and tobaccos. This little brick faced building was constructed with two-foot thick rubble side walls and heavy iron shutters which offered excellent protection against all of Murphys' fires. Horace Edson Thorpe ran a bakery and served meals here for a number of years, learning there was more than one way to strike it rich during the Gold Rush.
The Thompson Building was built by John Thompson in 1860, against the side wall of the Traver builiding. This stone building was one of the many put up after the fire of 1859, when the placers were still paying and business was still profitable in town. Meyer & Friedlander operated a general store here during the 1860s, afterwhich it became Fred Sackett's Saloon. It is situated at 472 Main Street.
The Peter L. Traver Building is the oldest fully intact building in Murphys. Built in 1856, its heavy iron shutters, tin roof filled with a layer of sand, and hewn stone walls fitted together without mortar combined to protect the building against each of the three great fires. Traver ran a dry goods store here at first, and the Wells Fargo and telegraph office also occupied a portion of the building. The store was run by a number of people over the years, including Riley Senter who took over from Traver, and Manuel and Garland who ran the place in the 1890s. In 1949, Ethelyn and Coke Wood turned the building into the Old Timers Museum, an interesting look at Murphys' past.
The Union Water Company Office was built in 1860, after the fire of 1859 destroyed their original offices. The Union Water Company was very much responsible for the prosperity Murphys enjoyed, as it furnished the water the early day miners needed to work the placers. This building was later used as a general merchandise store, a Wells Fargo office, and a drug store. It is located at 458 Main Street.
The Stephens Brothers' Cheap Cash Store was constructed in 1860. Built without windows, the store has two large front doors with the typical iron shutters. The building was used as a drug store for some time by Dr. William Jones, whose office adjoined the building. Purchased by Hames and Ben Stephens at a later date, they operated a general merchandise store here, selling everything from "sewing thread to gunpowder and butter churns to barbed wire." The post office was once posted here, under the supervision of George Scantelbury, the postmaster. This is one of my favorite buildings in Murphys. It stands at 434 Main Street.
St. Patrick's Catholic Church is located on Sheep Ranch Road, atop a small promontory surrounded by big pines. Typifying Gothic Revival churches of the period, construction of St. Patrick's began in 1858 upon land donated by Dr. Jones and was completed in 1861. The church was built from bricks which were made from a clay deposit located on the nearby Big Trees road. It was financed entirely by miners' donations collected by the "Church Builder of Calaveras County," Pastor J. Motter. The church was dedicated on Sunday, November 3rd of 1861, by Reverend Joseph S. Alemany, Archbishop of San Francisco. The Pioneer Cemetery near the church dates back to the 1850s.
The tiny Murphys Jail was built about 1915. The first occupant of its lone cell is said to have been a laborer who helped build the pokey. I imagine that this little building could get very hot during the summer, and not much ventilation with those tiny windows! A different brand of justice prevailed back in the old days.
Murphys Grammar School holds the distinction of being California's oldest school building in continuous use as a school. The structure was built in 1860 on land donated by Dr. Jones (who must have been a well-to-do doctor considering all the land he donated), some of the work contributed by local residents, with the final cost coming to $4,000. The building is forty by sixty feet and has two rooms, the back room being enlarged at some later date. When the school was first constructed there were no trees on the hill, so the school board transplanted a number of pines that still shade the surrounding playground, and which prompted the students to call their school the "Pine Grove College." A former student of the Murphys school was Dr. Albert Michelson who lived here as a boy when his father ran a clothing store. Michelson won America's first Nobel Prize in Physics in 1907 for his work in determining the velocity of light, which later aided Einstein's development of his relativity theories. It is located at the top of the hill on Jones Street.
The Buena Vista Cemetery is located up behind the school, near the top of the hill. The old tombstones become more difficult to read with each passing year, but the names, dates and epitaphs on each stone tell a story of a different time and place than what we know today.