A Little More About Joseph Murphy

Published by: David Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC
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Over the years, I’ve written several articles and blogs that provided information about the Murphy Wagon Company in St. Louis, Missouri. From the history of early trails and freighting to the opening of the West, the firm and its founder, Joseph Murphy, are easily among the most legendary transportation icons in America.  As such, there are many historians, collectors, and enthusiasts who chase the Murphy star, intently hunting for surviving pieces from this part of our past. 

I stumbled onto my first materials related to Murphy over fifteen years ago. Since then, our focused search and rescue efforts have been painfully slow in rewards.  Even with so little primary source data uncovered through the course of time, our archives are fortunate to hold a number of rare and important insights into the Murphy legacy.  Still, finding original materials from this maker remains a daunting task.  How daunting?  Well, period accounts report that Murphy built some 200,000 wagons in his day – 200,000! How many of these have been found? Let’s see... would you believe none, nada, zero, zilch?  Truth is, not even a particle of a piece of one of his wagons has ever been authoritatively identified.  Clearly, the difficulties of discovery surrounding this acclaimed builder make the brand one of the most elusive and desirable on the planet. 

I’ve said all of this to help explain my feelings about a decade ago when I unexpectedly came across not one or even two letters from the Murphy firm but thirteen. It was one of those times as a collector and historian that felt a bit surreal.  During the acquisition process,I kept a record of some of my feelings and always meant to share them within a feature magazine article at some point. As time has passed, I’ve never gotten around to putting the finishing touches on the piece and – since I needed material for this week’s blog – below are some excerpts from what I’d started along with a few insights into those incredibly rare surviving letters from J. Murphy & Sons... 

The above image is part of an 1883 letterhead promoting Joseph Murphy’s wagons.
The area I’ve fronted in red helps point out the Murphy Wagon Works where it was located on Broadway street in St.Louis.

I was nervous and fumbling with the perforated zip tab, trying to carefully open the small cardboard package. It was hard to believe what was happening.  My hands shook with excitement and my mind was a whirlwind, consumed with anticipation. I knew I should look for a more tranquil setting than the post office parking lot but I wanted to know more, first hand, from this man I had heard so much about. 

A few days before, I had received an email confirming my purchase of several dusty, brittle, age-stained and seemingly worthless nineteenth century letters. Lost, forgotten, and packed away in the stale, cramped quarters of an otherwise ordinary box, these handwritten notes were now part of our Wheels That Won The West® collection of early western vehicle history. They were an amazing discovery. Taking us back more than one hundred and thirty years, the tracks of deep blue ink on the soiled envelopes are surrounded by the invisible fingerprints of a literal legend in the development of the American West.  The notion of such a fresh find set my mind to wandering, drifting to a time in transportation history when wheels were wooden, tires were steel, and horse flesh was king of the road.

This photo collage shows a number of the 1880’s-era Murphy letters held in the Wheels That Won The West® Archives.

The 1880’s were heady days for many of the most established American vehicle makers. The U.S. had just celebrated its first century and the nation’s yearnings for transportation and travel were well-rooted. Reinforcing that point, in October of 1887, the 15th Annual Convention of American Carriage Builders took place inWashington, D.C.  As President of the association, Clement Studebaker – also President of the Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Company during this time – delivered the keynote address. Within the body of his speech, Mr. Studebaker estimated the number of horse drawn vehicle makers in America at 80,000. Contributing to that number with its own share of vehicle makers was St. Louis, Missouri.  As the ‘Gateway to the West,’ the city had a long history of outfitting emigrants headed toward the setting sun as well as supplying transports for military expeditions, freighters, farmers, businesses,and ranchers.  That same year, the population of St. Louis hovered around a half million and the city claimed more than 125 wagon and carriage makers/repairers.

Also in St. Louis during 1887, legendary wagon maker Joseph Murphy was celebrating his 62nd year in business and was working to transition the management of the company to his sons by the following year. During his last handful of years running the firm, Mr. Murphy penned several letters to a wood mill in America, Illinois. It was this group of letters I had stumbled across and almost immediately I learned that they are likely his last surviving business correspondence. Together, they shed even more light on the reputation of a man who made quality the ultimate standard for heavy, horse drawn vehicles while leaving a legacy that continues to overshadow almost every other western vehicle maker. 

Setting up shop in 1825, Murphy quickly became known as an expert in his knowledge of wood. From primary source research to later interviews with relatives sharing the family’s oral history, this legacy is a consistent message continually repeated about Murphy.  That fact has significant bearing on the content of the letters we acquired.

In addition to the letters, we've managed to acquire a few more pieces, including an 1881 promotional flyer. Most of the materials include illustrations of a Murphy farm-style wagon (which also happens to be the only authenticated images of any type of Murphy wagon). There are variations in the letterhead designs and one is written on a plain, ruled sheet and then embossed with a seal.  The writings encompass a five-year period from 1883 through 1887. Surrounding each of the folded letters, the tattered and discolored envelopes hearken to a period in American history when Geronimo was surrendering to the U.S. military, numerous U.S. states were still territories, and William F. Cody was introducing his first Wild West show. 

While close to two-thirds of the letters contain the flowing script and carefully penned words of a schooled clerk, the others are even more exciting. For in those letters, there is something very different. Dated to the specific years of 1883 and 1887, these individual pieces are written in an aged hand with occasional phonetic misspellings, an authoritative tone, and a clear command of experience with raw timber and wagon construction.  The most stirring part of this is that these letters aren’t the only place where I’ve seen this exact handwriting. Precisely the same penmanship can be seen in Joseph Murphy’s account books held at the Missouri Historical Society in St. Louis. From the punctuation and misspellings to the individual character strokes, shapes, slants, and overall alignments, roughly a handful of the letters were clearly connected to the same writer in Murphy’s earliest surviving account books – Joseph Murphy, himself.

This image showcases one of the earliest known advertisements for Joseph Murphy wagons. It dates to the 1850’s.

As I’d mentioned earlier, these letters had been sent to a saw mill in America, Illinois, roughly 150 miles southeast of St. Louis. The mill was owned by Benjamin Franklin Mason.  Mr. Mason had been engaged in that business since 1865 and had, apparently, first been approached by Joseph Murphy around 1880 to supply him with custom-sawn hickory for axles.  The letters to B.F. Mason contain specific instructions for raw timber that Murphy needed to produce wagons. The content of the notes is straight-forward and business-like. One, in particular, gives explicit instructions on the type of wood stock needed, when it should be cut from the forest, the dimensions needed, when and where to be sent, and the expected costs. Murphy also detailed his interest in what he referred to as “No. 1 timber” as well as his concerns with bugs – i.e. powder post beetles. As an established and well-respected builder, he knew the problems these critters could wreak and made no bones about his disdain for this part of nature. Murphy’s writings also included references to at least six different axle sizes for wagons being built in his shops.

There are more details in the letters and it’s possible that some of that information may hold the key to the eventual discovery and authentication of a Murphy wagon.  At any rate, we continue to be vigilant.  While there are no known Murphy wagon survivors, we can confirm – through Murphy’s own first hand accounts – that he was a stickler for quality, attention to detail, and customer satisfaction. Hearing it directly from the man himself, more than one hundred thirty years later, is a clear reminder of the value of continuing the search and remaining optimistic. 

To some, Joseph Murphy is celebrated as a successful Irish immigrant. To others, he’s remembered for his connections to freighting on the Santa Fe Trail.  But, to historic vehicle enthusiasts, he’s perhaps the most legendary American wagon maker of them all. It’s been almost two hundred years since his beginnings in St. Louis and well over a century since the last Murphy wagon was made. Tomorrow could be the day when the first one is found. A long shot you say? Maybe. But then, what chance did a small collection of 1880’s-era letters have of surviving for so long?  People move every day.  Forgotten items are lost, tossed, and regularly destroyed. Tucked away, isolated in an attic, time somehow stood still and these pieces survived. I’m convinced it was all for a reason. A reason surrounded by hope and reinforced by a promise that those who truly seek will find.

Have a great week!

Please Note:  As with each of our blog writings, all imagery and text is copyrighted with All Rights Reserved.  The material may not be broadcast, published, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written permission from David E. Sneed, Wheels That Won The West® Archives, LLC

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