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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp


Most of them are still there, lining tree-shadowed Main Street, and still in operation: the now-historic structures that were built in Murphys, Calaveras County, during the California Gold Rush. The picturesque town of Murphys, just down the road from the spectacular Calaveras Big Trees, and today surrounded by over 20 modern wineries within walking distance, is one of the most photographed, and/or painted towns in all of the gold country.

The Peter L. Traver Building, built by him in 1856, is the oldest stone building in town. Travers was a gold miner who opened a general store in a structure made of stone, enhanced with iron shutters, and further protected from fire with sand on its roof, which allowed it to survive the town’s fires in 1859, 1874, and 1893. He sold the building in 1883; over the decades it has been a retail outlet, a warehouse, a Wells Fargo office, and an auto repair garage. Now, it is California Historical Landmark No. 266, and houses the Murphys Old Timers Museum.

Also constructed the same year, the Murphys Historic Hotel is the longest continually operated hotel in California. Originally called the Sperry and Perry Hotel, it was opened by James L. Sperry and John Perry on August 20, 1856, when the town was a popular stopping point along the stagecoach route through the rich Mother Lode country. Considered one of the finest hotels outside of San Francisco, it played host to many famous men of yesteryear, such as author Mark Twain, real estate mogul John Jacob Astor, Civil War general & U.S. president Ulysses S. Grant, and millionaire financier J.P. Morgan.

Because of its stone construction and iron shutters, the hotel, too, was thought to be fireproof; however, it was damaged in the 1859 fire that destroyed much of the downtown. Quickly restored, it reopened in 1860 and since has had many owners. In 1882 it became the Mitchier Hotel; and in 1945 the Murphys Hotel. It is registered as California Historical Landmark No. 267. For adventuresome purists, its present owners offer nine of its many rooms in a condition as historically close as possible to the mid-19th century—rooms without TV, phone, air conditioning, or a private bathroom.

Other historic buildings still standing on Murphys Main Street date from 1860 and 1862. Murphys itself dates to 1848, when brothers John and Daniel Murphy, teenagers when they entered California in covered wagons with the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party in 1844, worked their way up the Stanislaus River and struck it rich in a flat quickly known as Murphy’s Diggings. Their spectacular success—both became millionaires while still younger than 25—attracted multitudes of enterprising young men. Murphy’s Diggings became Murphy’s Camp, and ultimately just Murphys.

Calaveras County, one of California’s original twenty-seven counties created by the state legislature in 1850 when California was admitted as the 31st state, took its name from the river named by Gabriel Moraga, a Spanish military officer, on his 1808 expedition of discovery through California’s great Central Valley. He so named the river because Moraga had noticed exposed skulls—calaveras, in Spanish—along its banks.

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