|Before the Gold Rush, the only inhabitants in the Murphys area were four rancherias of Indians, who held annual
powwows on a ridge north of Murphys where they danced and traded with visiting Indians. (The photo, taken in 1922,
shows Indian roundhouses near that area.)
When word spread in California about the gold discovery at Sutter's Mill in early 1848, large numbers of Californians stopped what they were doing, moved to the foothills, and began searching for gold. This was before the influx of easterners and foreigners that came in 1849--it took time for word of the discovery to not only spread, but, more importantly, be believed.
One group of miners found that their Placerville diggings had become unprofitable, and so they headed south in August, 1848. They tried, along the way, mining in Dry Creek, Sutter Creek, and the Mokeulumne and Calaveras Rivers.
When they reached what is now called Angels Creek, George Angel mined it and then set up a trading tent at what is now Angels Camp. George Carson continued with a small party and mined what is today called Carson Creek. In 10 days the party mined an average of 180 ounces of gold per miner, worth more than $180,000 at today's prices.
The Murphy Brothers
Two brothers in the group, John and Daniel Murphy (shown, with John on the right), went to the east, stopping first at what is now Vallecito and establishing it as a mining camp, known for a time as "Murphys Old Diggings".
They then moved to what is now known as Murphys. They were not the first to mine here, but they made by far the largest amount of money. John Murphys set up a trading tent and the area became known as "Murphys Diggings". The area was first known as Stoutenberg, but the name was successively changed to Murphys Rich Diggings, Murphys Flat, then Murphys Camp. Spellings used an apostrophe or not. Later, "Murphy's" was commonly used, but the post office changed the name to "Murphy" because there were other towns in the United States named "Murphy's". When a new postmaster took over in 1933, he got approval to change the name to "Murphys", without an apostrophe. That became the final name.
John Murphy's main skill was not in mining but in dealing with the Indians. In one transaction, he traded a blanket to an Indian for a five-pound lump of gold. (Worth, at today's prices, $80,000.) It was not hard to see how he could, at one point, have more gold dust in his possession than any man in California. Murphy did feed the Indians well and married the daughter of the chief of the tribe who worked for him.
In placer mining, large amounts of water are necessary. Miners wash promising gravel and dirt in hopes of recovering flecks of gold.
Murphys Creek, which today flows through the town, did not exist in 1849. There were a few small springs, but this was not adequate for the huge number of miners coming into town, and the miners looked for a source of more water.
They found it in the Stanislaus River, but to bring that water to Murphys required the construction of a canal from a point fifteen miles up the mountain to Murphys. It was, for its day, a large project, and it was built largely with pick and shovel. Wooden flumes four to five feet wide were built on trestles, sometimes above the treetops, to carry the water across gorges. Dams were built, including one of wood.
To supply lumber for the flumes and trestles, a sawmill was built up the mountain from Murphys. A railway three miles long was built, with mules pulling the logs from where they were felled to the sawmill.
Hunters shot wild game to feed the men constructing the canal. One of them, while following a wounded grizzly bear in 1852, discovered the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees.
The canal, known as the Union Water Ditch, was completed and water brought to Murphys in January, 1853. Mining efforts were expanded, and the water and rich diggings brought many more miners to the town, bringing Murphys to its peak level of population and mining efforts.
Additional canals were built to extend the water project to Vallecito, Douglas, Angels Camp, and other communities.
Murphys had a number of sawmills in the 1850s, sawing pine into lumber for the wooden buildings that made up the town--replacing the tents and brush houses that the miners first lived in.
Some of the mills were driven by steam (generated by heating a boiler with burning wood), while others were located on creeks and powered by water.
When the miners first came, the valley that Murphys is in and the hills surrounding it were covered with pine trees. As more timber was needed logging expanded east up the mountain. Sawmills in the forests near the trees were common, as it was easier to haul cut-up lumber than logs. Lumber was hauled in wagons tied together in a train and pulled by as many as twenty-four mules. Oxen were also used.
After the turn into the twentieth century the mule teams were sometimes replaced with a steam-driven "traction engine" (shown at left). These contraptions were criticized for ruining the roads and scaring the horses.
Almost every mining town in the foothills suffered from major fires that often burned much or most of the town.
In the earliest years there was little recognition of the risk of fire, and thus few precautions to prevent or deal with it.
Much of the business area of Murphys was destroyed by fire three times: In 1859, 1874, and 1893.
The 1859 fire began on a Sunday afternoon in a saloon and fandango house at the west end of town. It was believed to be arson, started by a woman who worked at the saloon out of revenge.
According to a San Andreas newspaper story, "the flames burst out of the windows, roof and doors", spread to wooden buildings on either side, and crossed the street. A brisk wind "carried the fire rapidly down the business part of the town along both sides of Main Street". Only the Traver store (now the Old Timer's Museum), which was fireproof, did not burn. The Traver store had thick walls and strong iron shutters on its doors and windows. A large stock of goods was in the building, none of which was damaged.
All other structures to the east were destroyed, including the Murphy Hotel, which was thought to be fireproof. According to the newspaper report, "The entire business part of town with the exception of Traver's store [and a bakery and a liquor store] was swept away in less than forty minutes."
Business had been good in Murphys at that time, and within six months the town was almost completely rebuilt, with more stone buildings. The Murphys Hotel (shown at left) was rebuilt, enlarged and improved.
In June, 1874, nearly all of the business part of the town was again destroyed by fire. About thirty structures were lost, the fire stopped by fireproof buildings at each end of town. Murphys Hotel survived. This time, however, little was rebuilt. There was no insurance, and the placer gold was mostly gone.
A third fire hit in June, 1893 in a warehouse near Main Street and Sheep Ranch Road. It begain with a series of five gallon cans of kerosene that were exploding. Then a huge explosion occurred from black powder stored in the building, lifting up the entire building and scattering items in the building--from clothes to groceries--out over nearby trees and houses. One woman wrote that the trees on Church Street looked like decorated Christmas trees.
The fire spread east for a block, burning every wooden building in its path, but the stone ones survived, including the Traver building. This third fire, despite its spectacular beginning, was the least damaging of the three major fires in Murphys.
Justice and Criminality
In the beginnings of the Gold Rush, there was little criminality. Miners, in 1848, left bags of gold dust in their homes and scarce mining tools at their work site, and there was no theft. There was little conflict over places to mine.
As more miners and hangers-on poured into the area, this did not last. The first systems of justice were local mining laws, creating in each mining district by the miners themselves.
Mining laws were particularly necessary in Murphys because the gravel and dirt was so rich in gold. In the first year of the laws each miner could have a claim eight feet square. This was later expanded to eight by sixteen feet. A miner would register his claim with the local alcade, a sort of judge/constable/clerk that existed under the Mexican system of justice then in effect.
These laws were revised as mining conditions changed. by 1847, each miner in the Murphys District could have one "dry" and one "wet" claim, each 100 feet square. The claim had to be worked continuously if practical--it was forfeited if not worked for more than three days, unless there was a good reason--like a big rainstorm.
Along with the miners in 1849 came pickpockets, thieves, swindlers, and murderers. Murphys Diggings had a reputation in the gold fields as being particularly rich and likely attracted more than its share of criminals.
To combat this criminality, miners organized their own courts, administered by the alcade and the sheriff. Miners served as jurors, and trials were swift. Theere were no jails in the early years, and punishments included banishment from Murphys, the cutting off of an ear, a whipping, or hanging.
In February, 1852, two strangers came into Murphys and burglarized a cabin and a clothing store. Gold and quicksilver worth $400 were stolen from the cabin. A diamond pin, a revolver, and $20 were stolen from the clothing store. The men were discovered with the loot and tried by a jury of miners. They were found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
The younger of the men--23 years old--was allowed to write a letter to a friend, as follows:
Murphys Mines, Feb. 11, 1852
I take the opportunity to write a few lines to you hoping to find you in good health me and Charley is sentence to be hung to day at 5 o clock for a robbery good by give my best respect to Frank and Sam and Church.
The men were hanged from an oak tree near where the old school house presently stands.