Founding of Morgan Hill Filled With Romance and Tragedy

Hiram Morgan Photo Special to the South Valley Newspapers

For Christmas, I received from my neighbor LuAnn Hood a T-shirt
commemorating the centennial anniversary of Morgan Hill’s founding.
I’m wearing it now as I write this.
For Christmas, I received from my neighbor LuAnn Hood a T-shirt commemorating the centennial anniversary of Morgan Hill’s founding. I’m wearing it now as I write this.

Mushroom City will hit its 100th birthday on Nov. 10, 2006, and this weekend the celebration kicks off with a big New Year’s Eve bash at the Morgan Hill Community Center. Called “Club 1906,” the grand party is sure to be one South Valley citizens will long remember. The event will be held, appropriately enough, in the center’s Hiram Morgan Hill Room.

And who, you’re probably wondering now, was Hiram Morgan Hill?

Morgan Hill’s story starts in 1844 when Martin Murphy Sr. and his large Irish family were among the first pioneers to travel over the Sierras into California.

Murphy purchased 9,000 acres of a Mexican land grant in our region. His youngest son, Daniel, helped him manage this vast tract.

In 1851, Daniel married Maria Fisher, daughter of George William Fisher and heiress to her father’s 19,000-acre Rancho Laguna Seca.

In time, Daniel purchased property in California, Nevada, Arizona and Mexico owning more than 1 million acres, making him one of the West’s richest land barons.

Daniel and Maria had one daughter, a girl named Diana whose spirited personality reflected her Spanish-Irish heritage. In 1880, when she was 20, she met a dashing bank clerk at a swank seaside resort in Santa Cruz. The blue-eyed Hiram Morgan Hill stood 6 feet tall and moonlighted as a Bullocks clothes model at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel.

Born on March 4, 1848, he spent his childhood in Cape Girardeau, Mo., along the Mississippi River.

Morgan’s Southern charm quickly won Diana over, and the two fell deeply in love.

He’d take her on long drives along the San Francisco Bay in his fine carriage pulled by two matching horses.

Adding to the romance, Daniel Murphy didn’t want his daughter to marry Morgan.

But headstrong Diana secretly eloped with Morgan in San Francisco’s City Hall on July 31, 1882.

Two months later, Daniel caught a severe case of pneumonia while herding cattle in a snowstorm at his ranch in Elko, Nev.

On his deathbed, he made Diana promise never to marry Morgan Hill. That moment of a false vow must have devastated the young woman’s psyche.

Daniel soon died, never finding out that his daughter had already wed the man he so disapproved of. Diana inherited her father’s immense estate.

In 1884, the Hills built a beautiful country retreat home for themselves on the property her father had first purchased.

The six-room Queen Anne house featured crystal chandeliers, Minton-tiled fireplaces and 10-foot gilt mirrors. The front porch looked out on an unusual conical foothill peak called El Toro. In honor of this breathtaking mountain view, they called their home Villa Mira Monte.

The same year the house was built, the Hills had their only child, a beautiful girl they named Diane Murphy Hill.

The proud parents spoiled her with lavish gifts from their European trips.

But the Hill’s marriage was severely strained, some say from the guilt Diana felt of lying to her father while he lay dying.

Morgan and Diana’s passionate love turned cold, and they separated.

She spent her time as a socialite between homes in Washington D.C. and San Francisco. And he moved away from the South Valley to live on his Elko ranch.

Diane grew up to marry on Dec. 6, 1911, a French baron named Hardoun de Reinach-Werth.

He was a man rumored to have a severe drinking problem. I suspect she really didn’t love him but was under pressure from her social-climbing mother who had great ambitions for her to marry into European aristocracy.

During their European honeymoon, Diane received word that her father had suffered a major stroke.

This grave news caused a further rift in the already bad relationship with her new husband. The young woman suffered a nervous breakdown.

In the St. Pancras sanatarium in London, she became so distraught with mental anguish that she threw herself out of a second-story window and instantly died from fracturing her skull.

Perhaps from grief over his beloved daughter’s tragic death, Morgan passed away the next year, a lonely man in his last days. Ironically, he was buried in the Santa Clara Mission cemetery next to Daniel Murphy, his father-in-law who had foreseen him as unsuitable for Diana.

Diana did join British aristocracy by marrying Sir George Rhodes and becoming Lady Rhodes.

She died in 1937 of tuberculosis in Cannes, France.

As I write this, I hear the sound of the train horn in the distance, which reminds me: I need to tell you how the town of Morgan Hill came to be named.

That story is connected to the Southern Pacific train tracks passing through South Valley.

The Hill’s Villa Mira Monte was built near the railroad line that extended south from San Francisco.

In the 1880s, railroad managers officially named the area Huntington, but train operators began calling out the flag stop near the landmark house as Morgan Hill’s Ranch.

People soon shortened it to Morgan Hill.

As settlers moved into the South Valley area, a small village called Morgan Hill began to grow around the stop. The community incorporated as a city in 1906 when it reached the legal population requirement of 500 people.

Today, Morgan Hill’s Villa Mira Monte still stands overlooking 17860 Monterey Road, a thoroughfare that is much busier now than during the time when the Hills lived here.

The home is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

If you’re interested in visiting Villa Mira Monte and learning more about the Hills and their tragic love story, you can visit the house on Fridays and Saturdays for docent led tours. Call (408) 782-7191 for hours.

During your tour, make sure you take time to see the detail in the home’s original front door.

It prominently displays a floral design in Tiffany stained glass intertwined around Hiram Morgan Hill’s initials.

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