August 30, 2011
Although the Carson City Mint coined only gold and silver from 1870 to 1893, it has left American numismatics with a rich legacy. Most of its coins are scarce to rare, and some of them are extreme rarities. Others, such as the silver dollars of 1882-84, have survived in vast numbers for reasons that have nothing to do with their original mintage figures. All of these coins, whatever their rarity or market value, carry romantic associations with the Old West and the great bonanza years of the late 19th Century. The tiny letters CC, the only duel character mintmark on United States issues, never fail to stir visions of grizzled prospectors, callous gunslingers and instant millionaires. The era in which the Carson City Mint produced coins is one of the most fabled in American history.
Most of the rich silver ore (and lesser amounts of gold) was shipped over the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the United States Mint at San Francisco; this was costly and incurred some risk as well. Though Indians were no longer a factor in Nevada and California, bandits were. The mine owners petitioned Congress for a branch mint in Nevada itself, and this question was put to Treasury Secretary Salmon P. Chase on June 2, 1862. Chase deferred to Mint Director James Pollock, who, as an opponent of all branch mints, naturally spoke against it. All parties largely ignored him, and the House Ways and Means Committee instead reported favorably on the establishment of a mint in the Nevada Territory.
In addition to the arguments in favor of a new mint, the committee pointed out that much of the refined metal emanating from the San Francisco Mint, whether in the forms of coins or ingots, was shipped overseas and lost to the domestic economy. It was declared that a mint further inland was likely to keep its product within the USA, somehow, saving the Treasury $500,000 annually. The exact cause and effect relationship of these savings was not explained, but its appeal was sufficient to get the Nevada mint bill passed through both the House and the Senate in a single day – March 3, 1863.
The legislation did not specify an exact site for the new mint, other than it was to be within the Territory of Nevada. Treasury Secretary Chase dispatched Colorado Congressman H.P. Bennett to Nevada to investigate suitable locations. As the territory's most enthusiastic booster, Abe Curry proceeded to sell Bennett on Carson City as the site for the mint. In addition to being centrally located to the mines, it was within a promising agricultural region. This latter claim proved to be highly optimistic, but Carson City was indeed chosen to host the new federal mint based on proximity to the mining regions. Delays caused by the ongoing Civil War held up the mint's progress, though a lot was purchased in February of 1865.
There remained some lingering opposition within the Treasury Department itself, and it was not until July l7, 1866 that the promised plans and authorizing documents finally arrived in Carson City amid much public celebration.
Problems soon arose when it became evident that the $150,000 appropriation, deemed sufficient to erect such a structure in the East, did not allow for the inflated economy of the Far West. Labor was expensive, materials in short supply, and the transportation of anything from the eastern states was a major undertaking. To stretch his dollars as far as possible, Curry hired a number of Chinese laborers, which led to widespread protests from the townspeople.
The mint's machinery, consisting of coin presses, blanking presses, rolling mills and a variety of other implements, had to come by sea "around the Horn" and the greater bulk of it did not arrive until November 23, 1868. At that point it seemed certain that the Carson City Mint would begin striking coins the following year, but numerous additional delays prevented this. One of these delays was prompted by the lack of bricks in Nevada, which prevented workmen from completing the mint's chimney. When they did finally arrive, it was too late in the season. Work on the mint had to be discontinued during the long and harsh winter, as it had been each year since the since the project began.
Tests of the machinery were conducted at various times during 1869, and everything was deemed to be in readiness. By December, dies had still not arrived, and Curry hastened to point out that the ones dated 1869 were no longer of any value at that point and that the dies should be dated 1870. In time, these did in fact arrive by Wells Fargo Express, but not until January 10, 1870.
Just a couple weeks earlier, supervising architect A.B. Mullet had pronounced the mint to have been built in accordance with the plans, despite the severity of its budget. Evidently it was well built, too, since it survived the earthquake without any signs of damage.
The arrival of dies signaled the start of coining, and the first denomination struck was the silver dollar, the very symbol of Nevada's majesty. These dollars were of the Seated Liberty type, designed by Christian Gobrecht back in 1836 and coined in modest numbers from 1840 onward. The reverse of each piece displayed a heraldic eagle with a shield upon its breast, and beneath the eagle was the Carson City mintmark, a pair of side-by-side letters "C." The first depositor of bullion to receive payment in coin was a Mr. A. Wright, who was paid 2,303 silver dollars bearing the CC mintmark on February 11, 1870.
The coining of gold followed three days later, when eagles or ten-dollar pieces were minted. These too bore a design by Christian Gobrecht dating from 1838, a bust of Liberty wearing a coronet on the obverse and a heraldic eagle with shielded breast on the reverse. Unlike on the silver coins, which depicted the eagle with wings folded and just slightly open, the gold coins showed the eagle's wings upraised. These too carried a small CC mintmark beneath the eagle.
Corresponding designs were used on the coins, which followed over the next few months. Half eagles ($5) were first minted on March 1, while the first double eagles ($20) were struck March 10. Silver coinage continued with the half-dollar on April 9 and the quarter dollar on the 20th.
No dimes were coined at Carson City until 1871, and no half dimes would ever be minted in Nevada, that denomination being shunned by Westerners as too little money to bother with. The CC Mint also declined to produce gold dollars, quarter eagles ($2.50), and three-dollar pieces, though all of these denominations were current during most of the mint's period of operation. For two years only, 1875 and 1876, Carson City coined the short-lived twenty-cent piece, the latter date being a great American rarity.
During its first few years of operation, the Carson City Mint failed to produce significant numbers of coins. The sole exception, perhaps, was the new trade dollar authorized in 1873 as a coin intended almost exclusively for export; these were struck in quantity during 1873-84. For the most part, however, it was not until 1875, when all the U.S. Mints were set to work making coins to replace the now-obsolete fractional paper currency, and pieces bearing the CC mintmark were struck in large numbers.
The small mintage of its early years was not the fault of the Carson City Mint. Though it seemed logical that Nevada miners would deposit their gold and silver ore at the mint for processing into coins, this was more often the exception than the rule. Many found that it was still more economical to have their bullion refined at the San Francisco Mint, while many of those selecting the Nevada facility opted to receive payment in ingot form rather than the coin. Were it not for the millions of silver dollars mandated by the Bland-Allison Act of 1878, there would have been precious little activity at the mint during the 1880s.
A frequent victim of politics, the Carson City Mint was the subject to periodic budget cuts and threats of closure.
A serious blow was dealt to the CC Mint when Grover Cleveland was elected president in November of 1884. The first Democrat to hold this office during the mint's years of operation, his election was correctly seen as a threat to the livelihood of the mint's officers, all of whom were faithful members of the Republican Party. The mint was indeed closed on September 11, 1885 and its employees let go. The mint did not reopen for more than a year, and then only as an assay office.
When the election of 1888 sent the Republican Benjamin Harrison to the White House, the Carson City Mint's staff of Democratic political appointees were dispatched and replaced with victorious Republicans. When the new fiscal year began on July 1, 1889, the mint received the necessary funding to resume coining operations. Due to years of idleness, however, the machinery wasn't ready for a couple months and the striking of coins didn't begin until September 9.
Minting continued more or less steadily until the spring of 1893. All this time, however, the production of the Nevada mines was falling off, and the price of silver bullion continued to experience a serious decline. The Carson City Mint, which had been plagued by reports of corruption, some fanciful and others valid, was now reviewed as an expensive and dispensable frill. On June 1, 1893 acting Mint Director Robert E. Preston ordered coining operations to cease, though the mint would continue to function as a federal assay office.
Nevadans assumed that this action, too, would ultimately be reversed. The likelihood of a resumption of coining was dealt a deathblow in 1895 when it was proved beyond a doubt that several employees, in conjunction with a number of prominent community figures, were systematically pilfering bullion from the mint. The facility was closed on April 18, and Superintendent Jewett W. Adams was forced to suffer the humiliation of opening an "Embezzlement Account" to replace the losses.
Amazingly, the mint did reopen in June 1896. Once again, its activities were limited to the refining of bullion to ingots. The continued hopes of the community that the mint would once again coin money were dashed with finality in 1899 when a bill passed in Congress officially naming the facility a federal assay office. Thus, no coins would ever again be minted at Carson City. In August, a train took some 22 tons of remaining "CC" silver dollars away from the mint, and all the coining equipment was disassembled and shipped to other facilities.
The Carson City Mint produced most of the silver and gold denominations authorized by law during the years of its coining operations, 1870-93. Silver dimes, quarter dollars and half dollars were struck every year from 1870-1878 with the following exceptions: there were no dimes struck in 1870 and no quarters in 1874. Standard silver dollars were minted annually with the exceptions of 1874-77 and 1886-88. Trade dollars were coined every year from 1873 through 1878. The ill-fated twenty-cent piece was struck only during the years 1875-76. Gold half eagles and eagles were minted annually except during the years 1885-89. Double eagles were issued for every date with the exceptions of 1880-81 and 1886-88.
So many of the coins minted at the Carson City Mint are rare that it is simpler to list the exceptions. Among the more readily available issues are the silver dollars dated 1878 and 1880-85. Along with a few less common dates, these survived in Treasury Department hoards until the 1970s, when the General Services Administration auctioned them off to collectors. As a result, thousands of mint state pieces are available today.
While not common in mint state, some of the more often-seen CC fractional silver issues are the dimes and halves of 1875-77, the quarters of 1876-77, and the 1875-CC twenty-cent piece. None of the Seated Liberty Dollars dated 1870-73 are common, but the 1870-CC edition is seen more often than its low mintage of 11,758 pieces would suggest. Likewise, none of the Carson City trade dollars are common, but the dates encountered with some frequency are 1876-CC and 1877-CC. All of this mint's gold coins are scarce, but the ones more likely to be seen in mint state are the half eagles and eagles of 1890-91.
The story of the Carson City Mint did not end with its reduction to assay office status in 1899. It continued to refine the raw gold and silver ore recovered from the mines of Nevada and neighboring states until 1933. In that worst year of the Great Depression, the U.S. Mint's roster of employees reached an historic low for modern times. One of the victims of this severe cutback was the federal assay office at Carson City. It failed to receive an appropriation for the new fiscal year, and its doors were closed, seemingly forever.
On Wednesday, December 8, 1999, Wells Fargo donated to the Nevada State Museum a $400,000 coin collection that includes all but two of the different coins minted at the closed Carson City Mint.