Life in Murphys, with its peaceful setting, quaint buildings and rich historic legacy, has been aptly named the Queen of the Sierra. And to those who love discovery, she is as exciting today as she was a century ago. Each of her stone or shiplap buildings, jutting granite boulders, long-forgotten mining claims and tombstones has a tale of its own to tell. Woven together, these tales produce a fascinating tapestry of Murphys’ past – contributing, as well, to a richer understanding and appreciation of the area as you see it today.
Murphys History Originates with 2 Brothers
It was in August of 1848 that brothers Dan and John Murphy first came to the region – hence the Murphys name. A trading tent and diggings area were their first priorities, but rapid growth soon followed. By fall of 1849, there were about 50 tents, several lean-tos and two block houses. The miners had organized a government and elected an alcalde (or magistrate), sheriff and constable. Some of the tents housed businesses including two doctor’s shops, four French dining rooms, twenty gambling tables and as many bars.
From contemporary reports, John Murphy reputedly worked well with local Native Americans although this account describes some self-serving cunning: “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.” With the help of the local Miwok, Murphy carried out as much gold as six mules could carry in December of 1849. He never returned.
By 1850, the camp had a population of 1200. Both a stage line and a post office were established, and a carrier appointed to travel to San Francisco once a month for mail. A considerable amount of gold was shipped by this carrier until he absconded with it on one of his trips.
By 1852, Murphys’ population had reached 3000 which included fifteen families. Although the softening influence of women and children had its effect on the coarse natures of the gold camp’s prospector citizens, Murphys could hardly have been described as “tame”.
It was an extraordinarily rich area for gold. During one winter, five million dollars worth of gold was taken from a four-acre placer area. In the creeks, an ounce to the pan was disappointing, since many claims paid as much as sixteen ounces to the pan. Such riches attracted fortune hunters from almost every country on earth. Gamblers, opportunists, prostitutes, and hard-laboring prospectors, the magnetic pull of gold lured them all. Miners’ diaries recorded days of standing in icy water, sweltering in 100° canyons, and endless labor with picks and shovels. Small wonder that these men sought diversion in drink, opium, gambling and prostitutes.
Early Murphys History Was Brutal
The wide ethnic diversity was also cause for quarrels. With misunderstandings in language, rules and customs, endless controversies over mining claims were inevitable. Liquor and pent-up frustration quickly turned small quarrels into fistfights and shootings. Camp justice was unique. For gold thieves, the punishment was immediate hanging. In 1850, the Foreign Miners Tax Law was passed which imposed a monthly tax of $20 on every non-American miner. However, Mexicans and Chinese seemed to be its chief target, and many were harassed in Murphys as a result.
One of the victims was Joaquin Murietta. He gave up mining, and seemed to have resigned himself to his fate when he opened a Monte gambling tent in Murphys. But drunks and toughs tore down his blue tent and tried to run him out of camp. By 1852, he was established in the nearby mining camp of Columbia, and was a reputed horse thief involved with numerous other local outlaws. Much of the rest of his life was spent robbing and killing miners in isolated areas.
Site of a Truly Wild West Court Room
In his travel journal, Leonard Noyes described a trial held in Murphys at this time. Alexander H. Putney presided as judge, and the trial was held in a 70’ x 160’ tent which was a billiard hall, bar and gambling casino, as well as court room. A hundred drinking, cursing, gambling miners with pistols, knives, and huge spurs continued their activities uninterrupted while the trial went on. The jury, well supplied with liquor by both the plaintiff and defendant, sat on benches along the soft sides of the tent, and mischievous fellows outside provided entertainment by sticking pins through the tent into certain portions of juror’s rear anatomy.
The lawyers sat next to the judge, and made sure there was room enough at the end of the table for customers to reach the bar unhindered. Cigars were passed out to the jury, and soon the place was so filled with smoke it was almost impossible to see. The constable kept up a running game of billiards during the trial and everyone, including the jury, was kept well supplied with liquor as the trial progressed.
Impressive Early Engineering Feats
But, there were serious pursuits as well, and much was accomplished during those early, wild times. The miners began canals and flumes to carry water to their diggings, and sawmills were built to provide timbers for flumes and mines. Two of the greatest engineering feats listed among these early day accomplishments were the building of the Deep Cut and the Central Hill Flume – extraordinary water conveyances built with rudimentary tools and very little money by the determined miners.
The Deep Cut was a 4000’ channel excavated to drain the flat behind the present Masonic Temple to the creek. The cut was 8’ to 34’ wide with a depth of 37’, and much of it was drilled by hand and blasted out of solid bedrock. The Central Hill Flume was built like a suspension bridge and carried water across a chasm from the Union Water Company at the 94’ level up to the Central Hill Mine at the 124’ level. A 740’ cable was suspended between the two uprights and the “wooden box” segments or flume were wired to the cable. Many declared that the structure wouldn’t last. The flume carried water from 1857 to 1859 until it collapsed in a storm. Pipe wasthen suspended from the cable until 1898.
Gradually, the wild days of the gold camp became a thing of the past, replaced by a more orderly society. Families started gardens and dairies, and a temperance society was formed to combat the “evil brew”. Hundreds of wood frame structures were built, including an opera house, hotel, churches, and schoolhouse.
The heyday of mining passed, but the townspeople stayed. As they worked in sawmills and stores, and built farms and ranches, they added their own chapters to the history of the community and became a vital part of its heritage. Today, Murphys embraces its history of the Wild West in the secrets of its architecture. Look closely, and you’ll find remnants of those early wild and rowdy days.