Christmas at Ironstone

Murphys Hotel circa 1850s

Last week I took a trip to the Sierra Nevada Foothills and strolled down Murphys’ tree-lined Main Street in Calaveras County. Exploring the town took me back to the mid-1800s and the frenzy of the Gold Rush. The  town offers shops and restaurants in period buildings, the gardens were lush and dripping in the rain. But, right outside of town, the majesty of the mountains waited to be explored.

A quick drive from Murphys, down Six Mile Road, leads to Ironstone Vineyards, one of many vineyards helping to make the area a rapidly growing mecca for wine enthusiasts. There are now more than a dozen family-owned and operated boutique wineries, all of them open year-round for wine tasting and tours. What struck me during my visit to Ironstone a few days before Christmas is the natural beauty of winter clamping down on the foothills, of seasons passing and mountains enduring. It was raining, hard, and my fingers and nose tingled with the cold.


Stephen Kautz

Stephen Kautz, president of Ironstone Vineyards, welcomed me to the winery. We talked before a crackling fire in a huge stone fireplace and then he graciously opened his family’s operation to my wandering camera lens. Before I set out, he talked a bit about the history of the area and the early settlers, his dreams for the future of the winery and the hard-nosed realities of today’s wine and grape growing businesses. The natural environment and his family’s commitment to protecting it was an over-arching theme in our discussion.

 Murphys’ rich and colorful past dates back to 1848 when John and Daniel Murphy established a trading post and gold mining operation in the area that is now their namesake. Entrepreneurs with the luck of the Irish, they were a part of the very first immigrant party (Stephens-Townsend-Murphy) to successfully bring wagons over the Sierra in 1844, paving the way for westward migration.

Ironstone’s Crown Jewel is the world’s
largest piece of crystalline gold,
weighing 44 pounds troy.

 John and Daniel’s cries of “GOLD” were among the first heard in California. It’s reported that the brothers took $2 million in gold ore from the Murphys Diggins in one year’s time, making them millionaires before the age of 25. In 1854 the largest gold nugget ever found was in California at Carson Hill in Calaveras County, above the Stanislaus River. It weighed 195 pounds and was valued at $43,534 in the currency of the day.

During that first year of the Gold Rush, Murphys boasted 50 tents, several lean-tos, and two blockhouses. By 1850, the camp had a population of 1,200. In 1852 there were 3,000 people, close to the present-day population. Murphys was one of California’s richest “diggins” in the area called “The Queen of the Mines.” During one winter, $5 million worth of gold was taken from a four-acre placer area. Such riches attracted fortune hunters and adventurers from around the world—gamblers, ladies of the night, and honest men, as well as infamous outlaws—among them Joaquin Murietta and Black Bart.
Gradually, the wild days subsided and families, gardens, churches, ranches, and dairies emerged. Hundreds of permanent structures were built, including an opera house, hotel and schoolhouse. As gold waned, the townspeople remained to work sawmills and stores, farms and ranches. They added their own chapters to the history of the community.

Guided walking tours of the town’s historic buildings, including the home of Albert Michelson, the first American Nobel Prize winner who was recognized for his work on optical precision instruments and electromagnetism. Tours are conducted every Saturday at 10:30 a.m., starting in front of the Old Timer’s Museum on Main Street.

But, the slice of California history aside, what is most impressive about Murphys to me is the foothill setting—rugged, delicate, enchanting. A perfect gift at Christmas.
To find out more about visiting Murphys and the Queen of the Mines area, go to
Merry Christmas!

Published by Kate Campbell

Writer, editor, photographer, novelist, short story writer, poet.

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