More than Trees in the Big Tree Collection: The Murphys Hotel & Daily Doings in 1880s Calaveras County, Part One

April 29, 2020
Franz Kunst

It shouldn’t be too big a surprise – many individual items in large collections are inevitably overshadowed for one reason or another – but here’s a great example of something really worth a closer look. This California hotel register from the 1880s, acquired by Gary Lowe for his collection of giant Sequoia-related material (the Gary D. and Myrna R. Lowe collection relating to the Big Tree of California, 1853-2002), tells so many stories, from touring entertainment taking advantage of the register to promote their performances, to marginalia about local and national events. What else might be learned from the thousands of other names signed in?

First, let's explore some of the marginalia. Stay tuned for Part Two in which some of the brass bands, comedians, dancers, medicine shows, and jubilee singers make their mark.

murphys sperry hotel 1862 vischer

 Detail, Edward Vischer, “The Mammoth Tree Grove, Calaveras Co. California, and its Avenues,” 1862


Mitchler's Hotel Murphys, Cal. 1909

Mitchler's Hotel Murphys, Cal. 1909

The Sperry and Perry Hotel, which was called Mitchlers from 1882 to 1945 and is now known simply as the Murphys Hotel was established in 1856 by James L. Sperry and John Perry in the town of Murphys in California's Sierra Nevada foothills. Initially catering to a thriving Mother Lode trade, the hotel was also a popular stop on the stagecoach line to nearby Calaveras Big Trees, which is of course how it came to be part of the Big Trees collection. But this register is relevant to many researchers not necessarily interested in sequoias, as it chronicles the comings and goings of a variety of travelers. I should note that archivist Brian Bethel actually processed the collection and wrote about it too.

Sperry register first page

First page of volume, April 7th, 1881

The first page of this register is dated April 7th, 1881 and contains both the printed name and signature of Harvey S. Blood, who had purchased the establishment from Perry's widow. Blood was owner of the Big Trees & Carson Valley Turnpike, a toll road to the Nevada border. However, in September 1882 Blood sold the hotel to C.P. Mitchler and his brother Frank. C. P. Mitchler signed in six lines below Blood. Despite the change of ownership, the Sperry name is retained throughout the volume.

Another register now held by the Calaveras County Museum in San Andreas has the signatures of such notables as Ulysses S. Grant, Mark Twain, and John Jacob Astor, but it would appear from an admittedly casual review that fewer tourists of note are present here. 

First, a note about the shooting of President James A. Garfield on July 2nd, 1881, the news reaching California the same day. Garfield was shot at a railroad station in Washington D.C. by Charles Guiteau. The wound was at first thought not to be fatal but he died about three months later, probably due to medical incompetence.

Garfield shot 1881.07.02

"President Garfield Shot July 2nd, 1881"


Next, a note on a piece of laid-in scrap that would suggest a bad fire in nearby Angel's Camp. Despite (or on account of?) sizable fires occurring frequently, I could find no reference to this calamity in any newspaper. I wonder if someone's information was garbled, since there was a significant fire in Merced on June 21st. Or could this be the only documentation of something else? Perhaps there's a further clue in the faint Chinese writing underneath.

Angels Camp burned 1885.06.24

“Angles [i.e. Angels?] Camp burned June 24th, 1885. Total loss”


A snowstorm was recorded on Valentine's Day 1887, the worst since 1849 "so sayeth Dr. W. A. Kelley." The winter of 1886-1887 was catastrophic across the United States, and in fact San Francisco's record snowfall (3.7 inches downtown) occurred February 5th of that year. As the snow fell, a couple of travelers from Sheep Ranch signed in as "Two Strangers."

Snow storm

Snowstorm February 14th, 1887

Read more in Part Two!