- 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.”
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 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.
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.”
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