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Nevada's Storied Carson City Mint
By R.W. Julian

The Carson City 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 promoting it.

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 unfolded.

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 contractor Curry.

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 installed.

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 men.

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 until 1871.

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. 24.

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 were they?

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 elsewhere.

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 East.

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 him.

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 same areas.

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 vault.

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 work.

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 CC mark adorn U.S. coinage. The institution was turned into an assay office but in 1933 even that facility was closed.

 



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