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First Carson City coins dated 1870

The Carson City Mint has long attracted numismatists because of its mystique in being an odd player in the world of coinage. It struck coins for only 23 years, from 1870 to 1893. The CC mintmark is, to many, an interesting alternative to modern coins with little history.

The growth of silver mining in this country is usually ascribed to the late 1850s when that metal was discovered in large quantities in what is now Nevada. Prior to that time very little silver was found in the United States, one exception being a mine in North Carolina which opened in 1841 and produced modest amounts of the pale metal.

Gold was also discovered in Nevada as early as 1850, but the amount mined was not all that great when compared to the massive quantities torn from the earth in California during the 1850s. All of this was to change in the spring of 1859 when two miners, Patrick McLaughlin and Peter O’Riley, were prospecting in the hills near Johntown.

Water was in short supply so the two miners dug a pit to collect rainwater and in the process they found a rich vein of silver. They marked their find in the usual manner and headed for the claims office but were waylaid by Henry Comstock, who had been spying on them.

Comstock threatened to go to court and claim that he had discovered the rich outcropping. Realizing that the matter might be tied up for years, McLaughlin and O’Riley reluctantly gave Comstock a third of the find. In a perverse result, Comstock bragged so often about “his” discovery that the whole area became known as the Comstock Lode.

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The original mining claim was named the Ophir, from the Old Testament. It was an appropriate and pleasant name for a rich discovery but the three miners were not all that lucky. Comstock and McLaughlin sold their shares to a mining syndicate for very little ($10,000 and $3,500, respectively). O’Riley did somewhat better, holding out for $50,000.

Comstock committed suicide in 1870 while McLaughlin later died a pauper. One would think that O’Riley would have done well but heavy drinking soon unhinged his mind and he decided – based on advice from a fortune teller – that a nearby mountain was full of gold and silver; he spent all of his money and got nothing but worthless rock for his troubles. He died in a mental institution.

In some ways the lives of the three miners mirrored that of the Carson City Mint. It began full of promise but then struggled as its final closure in 1893 drew ever closer.

The Comstock Lode itself was a strong economic force in the region, employing many hundreds of miners in its heyday. By the mid 1860s production of silver was strong and was to remain that way until flooding of the lower levels finally made such mining relatively unprofitable.

The Comstock Lode was of course not the only discovery of silver in Nevada but was clearly the most important. Although at first the Nevada silver output was merely another domestic product, the outbreak of the American Civil War in April 1861 was to provide quite another reason for its importance. The Union government was desperate for any source of gold and silver that could be used to fund the domestic war effort as well as buy war materiels in Europe. The mines in both California and Nevada were thus under pressure to sell their bullion directly to the government.

There was an unexpected by-product of the massive silver output in Nevada. Local boosters pointed out that California had a mint, so why not Nevada? As early as the fall of 1861 the Nevada Territorial representative in Congress had begun to circulate petitions towards this end. In due course the House of Representatives requested that Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase investigate the idea. Chase, having more pressing problems on his mind, in turn asked Mint Director James Pollock for his opinion.

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Pollock’s answer, dated June 19, 1862, ridiculed the entire proposal as a waste of time. He reported that silver and gold coins did not circulate east of the Rocky Mountains and that the San Francisco Mint had the capacity to handle any coinage needs that might arise in the West.

The Mint director also noted that the government had just purchased the Clark, Gruber, & Co. private mint in Denver. This was done for two reasons, the first being to put it out of business. The second was to establish an assay office to prepare ingots of gold and silver. There was therefore no point in establishing a new mint between Denver and San Francisco just to humor the local citizenry in Nevada.

Secretary Chase read the Pollock response and agreed that the proposal was without any merit. Administration supporters in Congress were told of the secretary’s decision and for several months the Nevada mint idea was apparently dead in the water.
Unfortunately for Chase and Pollock, someone forgot to tell the Nevada mint proponents to give up the struggle. Finding a few key allies in Congress, the mint boosters quietly slipped a piece of legislation past the solons; signed into law by the President in March 1863, it authorized the new mint. One suspects that President Lincoln was never told of the June 1862 letter from Mint Director Pollock.

In response to the law mandating the new mint, Secretary Chase picked H.P. Bennett to find the best possible site. Bennett must have been wined and dined extensively because his report, completed in January 1864, sounded liked a travel brochure extolling the merits of Nevada, especially his chosen site of Carson City.

When he visited Carson City, one of its chief boosters was Abraham Curry, a man who was to play a key role in the creation of the new mint. It is generally believed that Curry was the persuasive source for Bennett’s choice of Carson City over the other cities vying for the honor.

Even though Bennett produced an enthusiastic report, the Treasury was still not persuaded that the whole idea was worth pursuing. As a result the Secretary did little or nothing to implement the 1863 law.

Mint Director Pollock was not even informed in advance of the Bennett fact-finding tour and learned of it only when he was presented with the bill. It seems that the Philadelphia Mint was required to reimburse Bennett for his expenses, which came to more than $1,100. Pollock did request, however, that he get a copy of the report.

Once the Mint director had the report in hand, he used it to lobby against any further action by Congress. Pollock reasoned that if no money was appropriated, the Nevada mint was unlikely to be built. Unfortunately, the Nevada supporters were on top of the matter and persuaded Congress in February 1865 to fund the new mint to the extent of $150,000, which was to cover the cost of the land, the building and the necessary machinery.

Hugh McCulloch, Treasury Secretary under President Andrew Johnson, appointed three men – Abraham Curry, John Mills and Henry Rice – in December 1865 to be the commissioners in charge of erecting the mint building in Carson City. After input from Philadelphia Mint officers, architectural drawings were prepared in Washington during the summer of 1866 and sent to the commissioners.

When the plans were received at Carson City Abraham Curry resigned as commissioner and re-emerged as a potential contractor to construct the building. His bid was accepted and work commenced in late summer, the cornerstone being laid on Sept. 24, 1866.
Despite his obvious political connections, Curry was an efficient contractor and work moved as quickly as was possible in those days. By the end of 1867 the walls and roof were advanced enough for the interior work to begin.

During 1868 the workmen installed the flooring and also constructed buttresses to accommodate the heavy machinery. It was slow work and had to be done very carefully but enough had been completed by October that the specially built machinery was shipped by sea from Philadelphia.

The long trip around Cape Horn by ship took time (the Transcontinental Railroad was not completed until 1869) and it was not until the early spring of 1869 that the last of the equipment, which weighed 60 tons, had been put in place by Curry’s workmen. The machinery included three presses but it is not clear from the surviving letters if all three were coining presses; one of these might have been a press for punching out the planchets from the strips of gold and silver.

Once the equipment had been installed contractor Curry did yet another transformation. Pulling the right political strings he managed to get the appointment from President Ulysses S. Grant as superintendent of the Carson City Branch Mint. The appointment was confirmed in due course by the Senate, as was necessary under the law.

At the same time the President, with input from the Treasury Department and Mint Director Henry R. Linderman, appointed Thomas M. Luther as melter & refiner and D.W. Balch as assayer. Neither of the men ever performed any work and replacements had to be found for both.

In August 1869 D.W. Balch took the odd step of recommending a friend, Dr. Wesley Jones, for his position but without actually submitting a resignation. Melter & Refiner Luther simply never showed up.

Despite the refusal of the two appointed officers to begin their tasks, Superintendent Curry pushed the completion of the building with all due speed. The final touches were applied in August 1869 and in September Curry notified Mint Director James Pollock – who had returned to his old post – that he was ready to commence coining.

In the meantime Curry was requesting additional funds from the Treasury. The original allocation from Congress had been for $150,000 but by the end of 1869 more than $400,000 had been paid out with no apparent end in sight. The amount spent in erecting and furnishing the Carson City Mint was to exceed one-half million dollars, an enormous sum for that era.

At the same time that he requested permission to begin coinage, Curry also asked for the necessary 1869 dated dies. These were in due course furnished by Chief Engraver William Barber at Philadelphia and all had arrived at Carson City by Oct. 20, 1869.

Even though Curry now had the dies on hand and had formally requested permission from Mint Director Pollock to commence coinage, he was not allowed to do so because two key officers, the assayer and melter & refiner, had refused to take up their posts and replacements had not yet arrived. To cover himself in this odd situation, the Carson City superintendent let it be known in local circles that the dies had not yet been received and it was therefore the fault of someone else that coinage was delayed.

It is to be regretted that that coinage operations did not begin in 1869 as modern collectors are thus denied a chance to own 1869-CC coins. It is known that dies were sent for quarter dollars, half dollars and silver dollars but no gold. Had there been coinage made in 1869 there is little doubt that mintages would have been small, thus making such coins rarities almost from the day that they were struck.

As late as mid November 1869 the Treasury was still trying to force Melter & Refiner Thomas Luther to report for work but had taken the precaution in October of appointing Jacob Ringwalt to the same post. Ringwalt seems to have begun his work by mid December 1869. At about the same time Curry nominated Frank D. Hetrich as assayer. He also put forth the name of Ezra Staley as coiner; all were accepted by the Treasury but Staley never got an official commission, being replaced by another man – Granville Hosmer – in May 1870.

On Dec. 20, 1869, Superintendent Curry notified Mint Director Pollock that he would open the new branch mint on Jan. 3, 1870. The first bullion was deposited on Jan. 6, three days later. In his letter Curry requested permission to begin coining operations with the 1869 dies as those for 1870 had yet to arrive; Curry got a curt refusal from Pollock, who indicated that out-of-date dies were not to be used.

December 1869 saw one of those events that could have set the new mint back by several months. An earthquake struck Nevada and caused considerable damage in Carson City but the Mint structure came through virtually unscathed. Clearly Curry had done his job well in constructing the building.

Curry had taken into account the quantities of silver and gold likely to be deposited and employees were hired accordingly. By March 1870 there were 43 workers, men and women, and this would grow to more than 80 people by the end of 1875.

The superintendent wrote several letters about the lack of 1870 dies and these items were finally received in early February 1870. The first coinage began a few days later, with 2,303 silver dollars delivered on Feb. 10. There is little doubt that Curry arranged for a special ceremony, with leading citizens invited to view the beginning of coinage in Nevada. All of these silver dollars were paid out to a depositor named A. Wright on the following day.

It is assumed that Wright was a local miner or perhaps a bullion dealer in Carson. It is also likely that Wright was asked to exchange some of the dollars for other coins so that local residents could have one of the first coins struck at the Carson City Mint.

Shortly after the silver dollars had been struck, Coiner Ezra Staley delivered 1,644 eagles ($10 gold coins). Local newspapers, more enthusiastic than accurate, reported that 10,000 eagles had been delivered in this first gold coinage at Carson City. The first half eagles and double eagles were coined in March 1870.

Once the three gold denominations had been struck, Curry returned to the silver and in April both half dollars and quarter dollars were struck. Dimes were not minted until 1871.

Meanwhile the erstwhile assayer, D.W. Balch, was trying to obtain his back salary. On June 3, 1870, he applied to the Treasury to be paid what he claimed was due him for the past several months since his appointment. It is unlikely that the errant officer ever received so much as a cent for his troubles.

Curry resigned as superintendent in September 1870 to run for a Nevada State office but lost; he died in October 1873. His replacement was one of the 1865 building commissioners, Henry F. Rice.

As the year 1870 ground to a halt, the workmen and officers at Carson City could be proud of what they had accomplished. Today, an increasing number of collectors specialize in the interesting issues of this mint.

 

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