Diana Helen Murphy Hill

ditor’s Note: The following is the 13th and final installment in
a series commemorating Morgan Hill’s 100th anniversary. The Morgan
Hill Times took a trip back to 1906. Look for the series in a
special Centennial commemorative issue published on Nov. 10.
Morgan Hill – Along Monterey Road north of Morgan Hill’s downtown stands a prominent Victorian-era house. It sets the scene of a bittersweet love story that helped inspire the birth of our city.

Once upon a time, Villa Miramonte was the country estate belonging to Hiram Morgan Hill, the man for whom our town was named.

Born on March 4, 1848, Hill grew up on a modest southern plantation in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on the banks of the Mississippi River. His parents died when he was still a young boy, and he and his sister Sarah Althea Hill were raised by their guardian grandmother.

At age 22, Hill fell in love with his first cousin. To prevent a family scandal, the grandmother ordered him to leave the estate. So in 1870, Hill and his sister moved to San Francisco. There he found work as a bank clerk and part-time clothes model at the Palace Hotel for the esteemed haberdashery Bullocks and Jones, according to historian Beth Wyman’s biography “Hiram Morgan Hill.”

“A handsome and stylish bachelor who was always the picture of elegance, the tall, slender, blue-eyed southerner drove a team of matched trotters and the finest buggy money could buy,” Wyman wrote. “So it’s no surprise that in 1880 he caught the eye of Diana Helen Murphy.”

Murphy was the daughter of South Valley cattle baron Daniel Murphy, the largest landowner in the world at that time. Diana was known as “The Duchess of Durango” for vast ranching property her father owned in Mexico. But the spirited girl was more interested in the social graces than cattle, wrote Joyce Hunter in her book “Under the Shadow of El Toro.”

“Unlike her affluent but unpretentious pioneers parents, Diana, even as a small child, was very much aware of her beauty and importance,” Hunter wrote. “Impatient with the quiet and reserve of their lifestyle in what later became known as Morgan Hill, she developed into a dignified and charming young woman attaching great importance to social position.”

Diana graduated from the College Of Notre Dame in San Jose in 1880. Shortly after, Hill met her at a party in Santa Cruz. His good looks, charm and social prestige quickly won Diana over and the two fell deeply in love. However, Daniel Murphy was not pleased with his daughter’s suitor. He considered the bank clerk-model a fast and questionable character with no promise for a future as a rancher.

“Stemming from his humble, pious background, his opinion of Morgan was greatly influenced by his desire for his children and grandchildren to have religious and educational advantage as well as strong family ties,” Hunter wrote.

Despite Murphy’s misgivings, in June 1882 Hill proposed to Diana on a yacht in Santa Cruz Harbor. And the two secretly eloped and were married in a Methodist Church in San Francisco on July 31, 1882. As with all great love stories, complications soon came. Two months after the marriage, the 56-year-old Daniel caught a severe case of pneumonia while herding cattle in a snowstorm at his Elko, Nev., ranch. Unaware of the secret marriage, on his deathbed he made Diana promise never to wed the bank clerk he so detested. Murphy soon died, never finding out that his daughter had married Hill. While Diana’s brother Daniel Murphy Jr. received hundreds of thousands of acres in Mexico, Diana inherited her father’s immense estate in the South Valley and Nevada region. In time, the Hills had their only child, a girl named Dianne whom they nick-named “Daniella” after Daniel Murphy. The proud parents spoiled the girl with lavish gifts from their European trips.

In the fall of 1883, Hill’s sister Sarah Althea became involved in a sex scandal as the mistress of Nevada Senator William Sharon, a wealthy silver baron. The resulting sensational lawsuit trial captured the nation’s attention for two years and greatly embarrassed Diana and Morgan Hill in San Francisco society.

To find a retreat from the scandalous news appearing daily, in 1885 and 1886 the couple constructed a beautiful Santa Clara Valley home. Placed between Monterey Road and the Southern Pacific railroad tracks, the six-room Queen Anne-style house featured crystal chandeliers, Minton-tiled fireplace, and 10-foot gilt mirrors. The front porch looked out over acres of Madrone orchard land and up at an unusual conical foothill peak called “El Toro.” In honor of this breathing mountain view, they called their country estate home “Villa Miramonte.”

The Hill’s Villa Miramonte estate played an important role in Morgan Hill’s development. Southern Pacific train conductors began calling out the flag stop near this landmark house as “Morgan Hill’s Ranch,” soon shortening it to simply “Morgan Hill.” In 1892, the Hills divided their ranch property into 10 to 100 acre parcels and sold them to settlers lured to the development by national advertising in magazines and newspapers. As settlers moved into the area in the 1890s, a small village called Morgan Hill began to grow around the stop.

Despite their initial love for each other, the Hills’ marriage was severely strained. Some say it was due to the tremendous guilt Diana felt in her false vow to her father on his death bed. Over time, the Hill’s passionate love turned cold and they decided to live separate lives. Diana took charge of their daughter’s life and spent her time as a socialite between homes in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. And, just like Daniel Murphy, Hill moved to run the ranch in Nevada, often working in bib overalls and a faded work shirt.

In a letter to his cousin Jennie Wilson, Morgan Hill described his life raising cattle in Nevada. “I am now in my 64th year, my wife is 50 but looks and feels 40. (She’s) very fond of society, bridge, and visits with friends … I am totally deaf and have been so for the last three years. At one time, I could hear with a Hutchinson Accoustican, but not a sound now … My wife has been on the ranch only once in her life. Diane was never here. They both greatly oppose what I do. But I could not lean an idle club life.”

The Hill’s daughter Dianne married a French baron named Hardoun de Reinach-Werth in Dec. 6, 1911. Reinach-Werth was rumored to have a severe drinking problem. During their European honeymoon, the young woman received word her father had suffered a major stroke. This grave news caused a further rift in the already bad relationship with her new husband, causing Dianne to suffer a mental collapse. She was placed in the St. Pancras sanitarium in London. One day, in great distress, Dianne threw herself from a second-story window and fractured her skull, killing her.

The grief over his beloved daughter’s tragic death strained Morgan Hill’s heart. A sad and lonely man in his last days, he died on Nov. 13, 1913. He was buried in the Santa Clara Mission cemetery next to his father-in-law, Daniel Murphy, the man who had believed Hill was not worthy to marry his daughter.

Today, the Villa Miramonte estate rests in the care of the Morgan Hill Historical Society. A stroll through its rooms brings to life the bittersweet love story of Diana and Hiram Morgan Hill.


The complete series’ schedule:

Tuesday, Aug. 15: Martin Murphy, Sr.

Tuesday, Aug. 22: Mutsun Ohlone Indians

Tuesday, Aug. 29: Daniel Murphy

Tuesday, Sept. 5: Catherine O’Toole

Tuesday, Sept. 12: Charles Kellogg

Tuesday, Sept. 19: Senor Juan Hernandez

Tuesday, Sept. 26: Swedish Royalty

Tuesday, Oct. 3: Sada Sutcliffe Coe

Tuesday, Oct. 10: George A. Edes

Tuesday, Oct.17: Isola Kennedy

Tuesday, Oct.24: Madrone

Tuesday, Oct. 31: John Moreno

Tuesday, Nov. 7: Hiram Morgan Hill

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