Carson City Mint
By R.W. Julian
Mint is one of our more storied institutions.
The coins struck there have long been a favorite
of collectors and at the present time, for
example, Morgan dollars with the
CC mintmark are
in strong demand for several key dates.
In many ways the rise of this mint parallels the
Western mining boom in silver. Prior to 1859
little silver was mined in the United States but
this was to change when Peter O'Reilly and
Patrick McLaughlin discovered a large
outcropping of silver near Johntown, Nev.
Prospector Henry Comstock later stumbled on the
rich find and claimed he had found it days
before. The discoverers, fearing a lawsuit,
reluctantly gave Comstock an equal share; for
some perverse reason the find later became known
as the Comstock Lode. Comstock and McLaughlin
sold out for relatively small sums and were soon
broke. O'Reilly did a little better at $50,000
but unfortunately had a good ear for spirit
voices, which told him to sink a worthless shaft
in a barren mountain.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 created an
insatiable demand for gold and silver to fund
the Union war effort. Great sums of money were
needed to pay for war materiels imported from
Europe. Every bit of ore that could be taken
from the ground was important.
There was an unexpected result to all of this
activity. Local citizens decided that, if
California could have a mint, why not Nevada? By
late 1861 this idea had crystallized and the
Nevada territorial delegate to Congress was busy
In June 1862 the House of Representatives asked
Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase for his
views. Chase had none, war-time finances
occupying his attention, so he wrote Mint
Director James Pollock in Philadelphia for an
opinion. Pollock ridiculed the idea as a waste
of money, noting that the San Francisco Mint
could easily handle the Nevada output. Chase
told Congress to forget the idea.
Congressional proponents slipped a bill
authorizing the new mint past senators and
representatives. In March 1863, faced with an
accomplished fact, the Treasury dispatched H.P.
Bennett to the Territory to find the best site.
He returned in January 1864, having chosen
Carson City. While Bennett was in Carson City,
he met Abraham Curry, who was to be seen again
and again as the history of the new mint
Despite the law, the Treasury was less than
enthused about the entire project and persuaded
key congressmen to delay funding. However, the
delaying tactics eventually failed and Congress
approved $150,000 for the new mint, including
machinery. Had Congress known of the eventual
cost, the delaying tactics might have been a
little more successful. The final tab for this
mint came in at about $500,000.
Curry was appointed to the commission overseeing
the erection of the mint building but also
submitted a construction bid. He got the contact
and promptly resigned as commissioner to become
Various delays ensued and the cornerstone was
not laid until Sept. 24, 1866. By late 1867 most
of the building was finished but without the
necessary touches in the interior rooms. During
1868 and 1869 the interior was completed and the
machinery, sent from Philadelphia, was
Enough of the building had been finished by
April 1869 that it was now necessary to appoint
a superintendent of the new mint. And who would
it be? Why, none other than Abraham Curry.
All had gone reasonably well to date, but even
Curry was not a magician. Two of the appointed
officers, Thomas Luther as melter & refiner and
D.W. Balch as assayer, refused to show up.
Thinking that he would still be able to open in
November or December, Curry requested 1869 dies
and they arrived in late October.
Unfortunately Curry was unable to solve the
officer problem until December, delaying the
formal opening of the mint until Jan. 3, 1870.
By then Frank Hetrich was onboard as assayer and
Jacob Ringwalt as melter & refiner. Joining them
was Ezra Staley as coiner.
The formal opening had its expected results with
bullion brought in for coining. As the dies for
1870 had not yet been received, Curry asked Mint
Director Pollock for permission to use the 1869
dies. Turned down, he was forced to wait until
early February for the new dies.
There were 43 employees at the Carson City Mint
by late January 1870 and this number would grow
to 86 within six years. The work force included
several women hired to adjust the planchets, as
they were considered better at this task then
By late in January final preparations were
underway for the first coinage. Coiner Staley
delivered 2,303 silver dollars on Feb. 10; all
had been struck that day. The coining operations
probably took little more than two hours, even
if one includes the usual ceremonies.
Curry lost little time in ordering the coinage
of gold after that of the silver. On Feb. 15
Staley delivered 1,644 gold $10s. The first gold
$5s came on March 1 while gold $20s would see
the light of day on March 10.
Because Curry wanted to strike as many
denominations as possible for publicity reasons,
he was not able to return to the silver until
April 1870. On the ninth of that month the first
half dollars were minted, followed by quarter
dollars 11 days later. Dimes were not struck
In September 1870 Curry resigned his office to
run for lieutenant governor. He lost, one of the
few times in his life that this happened. His
successor was Henry F. Rice, the local Wells
Fargo agent. Rice in turn resigned in May 1873
and was replaced by Frank Hetrich. The latter
proved to be somewhat skilled in antagonizing
the wrong people.
In the meantime came one of those curious events
that seemed almost normal at Carson City. The
request for 1872 dies had been made in November
1871, but the order was not shipped until
January 1872. Heavy snows then blocked the
railroads and the dies did not arrive until Feb.
Rice, however, had begun coinage earlier in
February. The coiner had delivered 14,000 half
dollars, 900 gold $10s, and 2,750 gold $20s.
However, as the dies for 1872 had not yet been
received, dies of 1871 had to have been used. Or
Howard Hickson, in his history of the Carson
City Mint, states that the superintendent had
borrowed 1872 obverse dies from San Francisco.
The coiner "could not use their mint mark so he
ordered only one side of the coins struck. On
February 19, the new dies arrived and the job
was finished on the half-completed coins." This
account, which used local newspaper stories,
cannot be trusted as coins are not struck one
side at a time. Perhaps obverse dies were
borrowed and the coins struck normally, but if
that was the case, why not just say so?
The low Carson City coinages of the early 1870s
have been the cause of speculation. Some think
the Treasury had a policy of small coinages to
justify closing the Mint. This is inaccurate,
however, as the level of coinage had nothing to
do with politics.
In his report for the fiscal year 1872, Rice
stated that $8.5 million worth of silver and
gold bullion had been deposited. He went on to
note, however, that very little of this had
actually been turned into coin. Most of the
depositors simply used the Mint as an refining
institution to prepare ingots for shipment
The coinage of early 1873 is especially
interesting. A new coinage law, slightly
increasing the weight of the subsidiary silver
coinage (the dollar was abolished and replaced
by the Trade dollar), mandated that all old
silver coinage on hand be melted. It was no
longer legal for the mints to release silver
coins struck under the old standard.
When the new law went into effect, a
considerable amount of the old silver coinage
was melted and used as bullion for the new coins
struck after March 31, 1873. This action created
instant rarities, such as the 1873-CC dime and
quarter dollar without arrows. (Silver coins
struck after March 31 had arrows at the date.)
Minor silver coinage was relatively heavy during
the 1870s at Carson City but not due to local
demand. The nation had finally begun to go off
the curse of paper money caused by the Civil War
and President Grant was determined that silver
coins once more be used in American
marketplaces. Carson City played a key role,
with most of its coins being shipped to the
It was during this time that Hetrich's problems
began to multiply. Complaints led the Mint
bureau to send out an investigator in the summer
of 1874. He reported that Hetrich was fully
competent as superintendent but had the
disability of being a drunken gambler. The
investigator extracted a promise that the
drinking and gambling would cease but two days
later Hetrich appeared in a local hotel, drunk
and making threats. James Crawford soon replaced
During the 1870s Carson City was also well known
for striking the Trade dollar, a coin introduced
in the summer of 1873 to combat the growing
surplus of silver in this country. The idea was
to send the coins to China and Henry Linderman,
who became Mint director in April 1873, pushed
the Trade dollar as his pet project.
Over the next several years there was a series
of allegations over Carson City Trade dollars.
Part of the problem was tied up in the domestic
politics of the period. The Trades had been
allowed a limited circulation in this country,
with a legal tender of $5 in any one payment.
The unwanted domestic circulation sharpened the
eyes of those having to use them and there were
frequent complaints about their quality,
especially those from Carson City. As early as
the fall of 1875 a special agent of the Treasury
forwarded what he said were defective Carson
City Trades to Washington.
Philadelphia experts decided that Carson City,
which hardened its own dies, had done a poor job
in this case. Chief engraver William Barber
claimed that improper hardening at Carson had
caused the dies to sink (collapse) around the
rim. Philadelphia solved the problem by sending
dies that were already hardened.
The beginning of the 20-cent coinage at Carson
City in 1875 was to produce one of the classic
rarities of American numismatics. The story
began in 1874 when Sen. John Jones of Nevada
introduced legislation calling for this
denomination. He claimed storekeepers were
shortchanging customers because of a lack of
small change. He was successful and the 20-cent
piece was soon coined for a public that would
not use it.
Only 10,000 1876-CC 20-cent pieces were coined,
but nearly all of these were melted when the
denomination was abolished. Some people believe
that the coins mysteriously disappeared from the
Carson City vaults but the truth is a less
dramatic. Local collectors could have gone to
the Mint and simply asked for current coins.
The next challenge to face the Carson Mint was
the Morgan dollar coinage of 1878. When the
great experiment with the Trade dollar failed,
silver producers combined with Populists and
Greenbackers to demand additional silver
coinage. Sen. Jones was a key element in this
fight and his early "success" with the 20-cent
piece made the political forces favoring silver
aware of their own power.
Despite increasing strength of the silver
forces, Eastern bankers fought the cheap money
program with all the political force they could
muster. The debtor class wanted silver and
inflation. Those who were owed the money wanted
the same value back. In February 1878 there was
a compromise, called the Bland-Allison Act after
the chief sponsors.
The Bland-Allison Act authorized an immense
coinage of silver dollars with the government
buying a large amount of bullion each month at
the current market price. There were problems at
first with the dies at Philadelphia and
experimentation was the order of the day. A
second reverse hub was then made and this was
thought good enough for the time being. Dies
were now sent out to the other mints.
The Carson City Mint would almost certainly have
been closed had it not been for the new Morgan
dollar. In 1862, when silver had left
circulation because of the war, much of it was
melted but an equally large amount went to
Canada and Central America. In 1877 there was an
unexpected inpouring of this silver from these
Combined with the heavy silver coinages of the
mid-1870s, Treasury vaults were now filled to
overflowing. The Treasury reacted by halting
minor silver coinage and it was some years
before subsidiary silver once again began to be
struck in quantity, but not at Carson City.
Carson had few problems with the Morgan dollar
coinage until 1880. In late 1878 the third
reverse hub had been executed and within a short
time all of the mints were using dies from the
new hub. Dies from the second reverse were used
until all were gone. All, that is, except at
Carson, where some were stored in the coiner's
Coiner Levi Dague began using these old dies in
the fall of 1880 and found that they would not
strike a quality coinage. He did not realize
that the radius (curvature) of the dies had been
altered and the old honing instruments would not
Crawford forwarded Dague's concerns to
Philadelphia in October 1880 and chief engraver
Charles E. Barber soon discovered the cause of
the problem. Dague was ordered to return all of
the reverse dies from the second hub and to be
certain that basining (honing) instructions were
carefully followed in the future.
Prior to 1879 there had been some minor mint
shutdowns at Carson, for lack of bullion,
lasting a month or two but after that they would
be more frequent. During the summer of 1879,
there had been a partial shutdown with only gold
being coined for a few months. However, on Nov.
15, 1879, coinage was suspended completely
although assaying work continued. Coinage did
not resume until September 1880.
In 1881 coinage was again suspended from April
through October. Production at the Carson Mint
was now restricted to silver dollars and three
gold denominations: $5s, $10s and $20s. It would
continue to strike these coins until 1893.
Crawford died in March 1885 and was succeeded by
William Garrard. Work was immediately stopped.
All the workmen were discharged and key people
replaced with political appointees. One employee
was ordered by Garrard to resign and refused. He
was then fired for insubordination. The Mint was
closed completely in November 1885.
In October 1886, the Mint reopened for deposits
and assaying of bullion but coinage did not
resume until September 1889. On June 1, 1893,
coining operations were permanently suspended at
Carson City and no longer would the
adorn U.S. coinage. The institution was turned
into an assay office but in 1933 even that
facility was closed.