Before delving into Morgan Hill ’ s beginnings , we acknowledge that the land we now call home was first inhabited many thousands of years ago by indigenous peoples such as the Tamien , Matalan and Mutsun . In contrast with the colonizers who followed , they considered themselves stewards of Mother Earth rather than her masters or owners .
Spain ruled California from the late 1700 ’ s , followed by Mexico from 1821 to 1848 . During those years , missions , soldiers and settlers were granted large tracts of land , loosely defined by diseños ( rough hand-drawn maps ). Some of these “ ranchos ” were held within families for generations . However , by 1851 , the Gold Rush , California statehood , American immigration , the California Land Act , and a changing economy made large landholdings increasingly difficult to maintain .
Landowners realized that their land was worth more sold off in small pieces than if used to support the old way of cattle ranching . In order to subdivide and sell their land , they grappled with lawyers , bankers , railroad executives , and yes , real estate developers .
C . H . Phillips was born in Ohio in 1837 . At age 29 , he left his wife and child behind for California . After brief stints as a teacher and a law office assistant , he landed a job with the IRS . Five years later he opened a bank in San Luis Obispo . By 1878 , he ’ d become a full-time real estate developer . Over the next eight years , Phillips bought , subdivided , and sold numerous ranchos and founded the West Coast Land Company . Phillips spearheaded development of the rancho lands in Morgan Hill in the 1890 ’ s . This was one of his last and largest projects , involving more than 40,000 acres . He completed his work on the project but died just four years before Morgan Hill was incorporated in 1906 .
The Birth of a Town
Morgan Hill ’ s development was planned and sited at the confluence of several large ranchos . Phillips worked with large landowners , including Hiram Morgan Hill and his wife Diana Murphy Hill . Diana had inherited some of the Murphy family ’ s landholdings . Phillips also worked with other Murphy family heirs ; with the son of another land heiress , Catherine Dunne ; and with the Southern Pacific Railroad .
The result was the new town of “ Huntington ,” but as the story goes , most of the town ’ s early visitors came from San Francisco to visit their high-profile friends , Diana and Hiram Morgan Hill , at their country estate known as Villa Mira Monte . They ’ d tell the train conductor to “ stop at Morgan Hill ’ s place .” The name stuck and the town was thereafter known as Morgan Hill .
In C . H . Phillip ’ s day , land was surveyed and subdivided , and parcels were sold as-is . It was up to buyers to build their homes , dig wells , install windmills , and clear their land in order to farm it . For many , the dense growth of oak trees on their lands could be cut and sold to cover their costs during the first few years until orchards or crops matured and became productive .
In the downtown area , parcels averaged one-half acre . Surrounding agricultural parcels ranged from five to 100 acres or more . Even then , it was all about location , location , location .
The Hill ’ s had contracted with C . H . Phillips to sell all but the 200 acres surrounding Villa Mira Monte . In fact , the Hill ’ s , Murphy ’ s and Dunne ’ s were all in various stages of selling their landholdings . Phillips acted quickly to have a town center platted and several roads cleared . By 1895 he was selling parcels for $ 100 to $ 125 an acre .
Many of the parcels east of Monterey Road continued to be subdivided and sold over the next two decades or more . The acreage held by the Hill ’ s was subdivided in 1912 . Their heirs held onto Villa Mira Monte and its surrounding 10 acres until 1939 . To this day , many parcels remain bound by the lines surveyed by C . H . Phillips ’ engineers more than a century ago .
Early Morgan Hill farms were small , with gardens , orchards , chickens , maybe a few cows or horses . Their downtown boasted two hotels , a train depot , a post office and a new school system . The community was basically self-sufficient . Even though the population was just over 500 when the town incorporated in 1906 , Morgan Hill was already recognized by NorCal travelers thanks to the guidebooks and maps that Phillips began circulating back in 1895 .
Today , Villa Mira Monte is listed on the National Register of Historical Places , to be maintained in perpetuity as a historical park for the benefit of the community . Learn more at www . morganhillhistoricalsociety . com .
GILROY • MORGAN HILL • SAN MARTIN WINTER 2021 gmhtoday . com