Main Street in Murphys was already bustling with visitors as docent Ron Fillmore stepped out from the front door of the Old Timers Museum on Aug. 31.
Every Saturday at 10 a.m., a group forms in front of the museum for a free historical walking tour of the town.
Enthusiastic about local history, Fillmore has guided the tours for the past six years.
The tour began with an account of the Murphy family and its contributions to founding the state of California.
“What the Murphy family did for the state of California is totally amazing,” Fillmore said.
He told the story of how the Murphys fled religious persecution in Ireland in 1820; how they settled in Quebec and then in Missouri; how they heard of better opportunities out West and headed for California.
“There’s a whole book on their trip across the country,” Fillmore said. “We could stay here all day.”
The Stephens-Townsend-Murphy Party set out from Council Bluffs, Iowa, in May of 1844. The party consisted of 51 people, 26 of which were members of the Murphy family.
In October, the party was guided across the Nevada desert by an American Indian chief whom they called “Truckee.” They likely mistook the Paiute word for “very well” with the chief’s name.
“So they started calling him ‘Truckee,’ so there’s the beginning of the town of Truckee,” Fillmore said.
Crossing the Sierra in early winter was no easy task, Fillmore said.
“When you get to Donner Lake, there’s a huge cliff,” he said. “They figured out how to get the oxen up and around and up to the top of this cliff, and they actually took the wagons apart, and pulled them up with the oxen.”
“Late in the year to get across the Sierra,” tour attendee Scott Sterley said.
“Luckily it was a pretty light winter,” Fillmore said.
As they crossed over Donner Pass, the party became the first emigrant train to bring wagons over the Sierra Nevada.
Fillmore went on to tell how the patriarch of the Murphy family, Martin Murphy Sr., settled in the Santa Clara Valley, where he established several successful farms and ranches; how his sons John and Daniel Murphy became traders working with Capt. Charles Weber; how Martin Murphy Jr. grew wheat and raised cattle near Sutter’s Fort before following his father to the Santa Clara Valley and founding Sunnyvale.
Fillmore spoke of John and Daniel Murphys’ decision to head to the Gold Country.
“So in January of 1848, when gold was discovered, they were storekeepers. So they decided, ‘Well, heck. Let’s go check out this Gold Rush situation,’” he said.
The brothers ended up founding the town of Murphys, where they made their fortune by trading goods to Native Americans in exchange for gold. While Daniel left after a few months, John stayed until December of 1849.
“So John loads up six mules with all the gold that they can carry. They think it was $1.5 to $2 million. They think that John had more gold than anybody in the United States at that time … I’d like to know how they got cross-country from here to Santa Clara Valley with six mules packed with gold!” Fillmore said, laughing.
“Without getting robbed!” tour attendee Dr. Rodger Orman said.
Fillmore told of how the Murphys were known for their generosity, and even threw the biggest party the state had yet seen in 1881 in celebration of Martin Jr.’s 50th wedding anniversary.
“The Murphys are known for being really benevolent,” he said. “Murphys has a really good vibe; everyone knows it’s a good place to hang out. I think the Murphy family started that.”
The group came to a stop in front of an old stone building, once used as a bakery. Fillmore pointed out yellow painted letters on the front window that dated to the 1880s.
“The history of all this stuff gives me the chills sometimes,” Fillmore said.
At the Aria Bakery, Fillmore pointed out a large steel rail spanning across the ceiling of the building, and coming to an end at the front door.
“This was a butcher shop. There’s a steel rail up there, they used to hang meat from it. It used to go out into the street,” Fillmore said.
At the Sierra Nevada Adventure Co. building, Fillmore said, “This was originally (the site of) T.J. Matteson’s stable. Supposedly this building was originally one of the hotels over by the Nugget. They disassembled it after one of the fires and rebuilt it here.”
As the group walked down the street, Fillmore wove together the history of the buildings with stories of the town. He talked about the discovery of the Big Trees, the construction of the flume from the Stanislaus River, and the fires that consumed the town on several occasions.
While Fillmore seemed willing to cover the entire history of the town, the group decided that they had learned enough for one day after two hours. The group made its way back to the museum, where they viewed historical artifacts and purchased some books on local history.
“Thank you, Ron; that was wonderful!” Orman said.
“Hope you enjoyed it!” Fillmore said.
The Murphys Old Timers Museum offers free historical walking tours of Murphys every Saturday at 10 a.m. It also gives tours by appointment during the week. Contact museum docent Tim Chisholm at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.