Town of Murphys captures Motherlode’s flavor
December 1, 2016
The Northern California hamlet of Murphys is one of those rare places that seem to have avoided the coming of the 21th century.
While the streets are paved and lined with cars and there are plenty of hanging wires and phone poles, Murphys (no possessive "s" in the name) still looks pretty much like it did when it was founded nearly a century and a half ago.
Located in California's Motherlode country, once a prosperous mining region of the state, Murphys was founded in 1848 during the peak of the California Gold Rush. Two brothers, Dan and John Murphy, set up a trading tent and dig area and were soon joined by others.
In less than a year, some 50 tents, crude shanties and a couple of block houses had been erected in the small camp. John Murphy was a shrewd businessman and reportedly departed the camp a year later with more than $1.5 million in gold.
By 1850, Murphys had 1,200 residents, a post office, dozens of businesses and a stage line. The town rode the gold rush rollercoaster for the next decade (the population peaked at about 3,000 in 1852).
During the 1850s, Murphys prosperity earned the town the title, Queen of the Sierra. A total of $15 million was generated in its first decade from placer mining.
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The gold found in Murphys wasn't easy to extract. While the soil unusually rich—some placer holdings produced as much as 16 ounces of gold to the pan — the work was extremely hard, requiring miners to stand in chilly water all day or chip away at hard rock in 100-degree heat.
Not surprisingly, Murphys had its share of diversions, such as dozens of saloons, gambling halls, red light districts and opium dens.
Outlaws, too, found success in Murphys darker corners. Notorious California bandit Joaquin Murrieta mined and ran a gambling parlor at Murphys, then was run out by anti-foreigner thugs. In response, he embarked on his infamous career as a robber and killer.
The towns fortunes began to wane in the 1870s but it continued to thrive as a result of lumber, farming and other industries (including, more recently, tourism).
Today, Murphys boasts a remarkable number of surviving historic buildings and homes. Main Street is lined with several dozen picturesque commercial structures while the side streets are filled with quaint homes.
The most prominent building is probably Murphys Historic Hotel, built in 1856. The two-story structure, originally called Sperry and Perrys Hotel, was partially burned in a disastrous fire in 1859 but was rebuilt. Parts of the town were also damaged by fires in 1874 and 1893.
The hotel, which has been restored as a bed and breakfast, has hosted various dignitaries over the years such as Ulysses S. Grant, Sir Thomas Lipton, Mark Twain, Horatio Alger and Henry Ward Beecher.
Another of the towns ancient survivors is the Peter L. Traver Building, now the Old Timers Museum, which was built in 1859. The museum contains thousands of antiques and artifacts that help detail the towns rich history.
Other historic structures include: the Jones Apothecary Shop, also on the Main Street, which was built in 1860; the Thorpe Bakery, built in 1859; the Old Segale Building, built in 1859; and the Rufe and Keilbar Meat Market (1859).
Wandering the town, you can find other unique historical homes such as the P.L. Traver House (1862), the Victorian Sperry House (1857), the Dunbar House (1880-81) and the Chase House (1862).
The latter is interesting because it was the boyhood home of Dr. Albert Michelson, who won the 1907 Nobel Prize for determining the speed of light (Michelsons father ran a clothing store in Murphys).
St. Patrick's Church on a knoll above the town was built in 1858 and remains a splendid example of 19th century Gothic Revival church architecture. It was built by volunteer labor and using donations of gold and mining certificates from local miners.
Murphys School, built in 1860, holds the distinction of having been the second oldest building in California used continuously for school purposes (until 1973).
No visitor to Murphys should overlook a stop at the local town park. This little patch of well-shaded green straddles a pleasant babbling brook and offers a small bandstand and picnic tables.
For more information about Murphys, go to: http://visitmurphys.com/.
Rich Moreno covers the places Nevadans want to visit.