Now known as The Mint Museum of Art, the structure which once housed the United States Branch Mint at Charlotte, North Carolina has been relocated since its days in government service. Lying in the way of a proposed expansion to the city's post office, the venerable building was slated for demolition in 1932. Coming to its defense was the Charlotte Woman's Club. At the prompting of the chairman of its art department, Mary Myers Dwelle, a campaign was undertaken to raise funds for the rebuilding of the old mint structure at another site.
The edifice was already coming down as the club gathered for its meeting of February 18, 1933. A mere $1,500 was being asked by the sub-contractor for all of the bricks and stones which comprised the mint building, provided that the ladies could also pay for the cost of hauling them away to the new site. Present at that fateful meeting was Leila Mechlin, secretary of the American Federation of Art. "Are you going to lose it for the small amount needed?" she cried. "You could make this building an inspiration for future generations."
Coming during the very greatest depth of the Depression, however, even the modest sum required was not easily had. A few pledges were made right there and then, but it was not until the ladies prevailed upon their friends and families for further donations that they reached a final total of $920. Time was of the essence; the workmen had no instructions to disassemble the structure carefully, and it was feared that the precious stones and timbers would be damaged. Beseeching the contractor, Mr. W. R. Hart, to accept their counter-offer, he agreed to the compromise figure of $950. This was speedily accepted, and the mint building was saved.
After debating several possible sites for reelecting the structure,
a lot measuring three acres was generously donated by a Mr. E. C. Griffith.
The contractor fulfilled his part of the bargain, numbering the various
components as they were taken down and then quite literally dumping them
at the new site. The task of reassembling the building was funded through
a grant from the federal Emergency Relief Administration, which assigned
this undertaking to the Civil Works Administration, one of President Franklin
D. Roosevelt's "alphabet soup" of make-work programs. Martin E. Boyer donated
his services as supervising architect, and the mint structure was slowly
rebuilt between 1933 and 1936.
The formal opening of The Mint Museum of Art took place October 22, 1936. Since that time, it has served the city of Charlotte well as a major cultural institution. Of interest to numismatists is its superb collection of gold coins produced by the Charlotte Mint between 1838 and 1861.
The story of the Charlotte Mint begins with the discovery of gold in that part of the country. Colonial-Era America had precious little in the way of domestic mines, leading to a general shortage of metals of all kinds. This situation persisted throughout the Revolution and the early years of the republic. Though fur trappers and others moving deep into the North American interior brought back tales of gold nuggets being found in creek beds, the remoteness of such places weighed against their exploitation. In fact, it was not until the 1790s that the first discovery of native gold occurred within a settled part of the country. Different accounts give the date as either 1790 or 1799, but the first significant gold find was that of young Conrad Reed. In the company of his sister and younger brother, Conrad discovered a sizable nugget of gold in a creek running through their father's farmland in Cabarrus County, and he brought it to the house.
Not recognizing that it was gold ore, the family reportedly used the heavy lump as a doorstop for several years! In 1802 Conrad's father John Reed, sensing that the metal might have some value after all, brought it to a jeweler in Fayetteville who soon identified it as gold. Reed, unaware of the price of gold, asked for and received just $3.50 for the nugget, which was rumored to have weighed some 17 pounds. Pleased with himself, Mr. Reed explored the creek further and, one year later, discovered another nugget weighing 28 pounds. Though this was the largest single find ever made in the region, Reed's explorations revealed that the creek was studded with gold flakes and nuggets for the length of about one mile.
Other discoveries followed those of the Reed Family, mostly within Mecklenburg County. This touched off the nation's first gold rush, and the addition of so many miners only increased the rate at which gold discoveries were being made. Things reached a fever pitch during the 1820s and '30s. Soon, a private mint was established in Rutherfordton, North Carolina by a German-American immigrant named Christopher Bechtler. He formed a partnership with his sons and, from 1830 to 1852, the Bechtlers minted gold coins valued at one dollar, two-and-one-half dollars, and five dollars. In fact, the Bechtlers preceded the federal government in the making of gold dollars by some 19 years. Though highly distinctive in design, the Bechtler coins proved to be of full value and were widely circulated in the region.
As the area grew in both wealth and prestige, there was soon agitation on the part of North Carolina's congressional delegation to establish a branch of the United States Mint at Charlotte, the seat of Mecklenburg County. Though not specifically stated, it was expected that such a mint would put the Bechtlers out of business. Legislation creating the Charlotte branch of the U. S. Mint was indeed signed into law by President Andrew Jackson on March 3, 1835. Coinage at the new mint was limited to gold, since that metal provided the sole reason for its creation.
Included in the same bill were provisions for branch mints at New Orleans and Dahlonega, the seat of Georgia's Lumpkin County. Like the Charlotte Mint, that of Dahlonega was restricted to the coining of gold. Given the geographical proximity of Charlotte and Dahlonega, it seems that one mint would have been sufficient to serve the Piedmont region. Politics won out, however, and both gold fields received their own facility.
While the Charlotte Mint now existed on paper, it was another matter altogether to actually build the structure and install its machinery. This task was assigned to Major Samuel McComb, who accepted his commission only after President Jackson's first appointee, James M. Hutchison, declined on political grounds. McComb met with architect William Strickland in June of 1835, receiving the plans and cost estimates for the structure. The sum of $1,500 was approved for purchase of the site, and an estimated construction cost of $33,000 was agreed to by Treasury Secretary Levi Woodbury.
McComb encountered a number of delays during the construction process. In November of 1835, the contractor declared that Strickland's plans for the structure were unsuitable, and new ones had to be drawn. There were also a few problems to be resolved with the deeds for the various lots acquired for the building's site. Finally, the cornerstone was laid with great ceremony on January 8, 1836. Work continued throughout that year and, on June 24, 1837, Major McComb notified Secretary Woodbury that the building would be completed within two to three weeks.
The mint's machinery was arriving at about the same time. The coin presses and milling machines were furnished by Merrick, Agnew and Tyler, while much of the supporting equipment such as boilers, furnaces and rolling mills came from Coleman and Sellers of Philadelphia. These machines were sent by sea, usually arriving at the ports of Charleston and Camden in South Carolina. All of the equipment received by the Charlotte Mint was state of the art. The fact-finding journey of Philadelphia Mint Chief Coiner Franklin Peale through the mints of Europe in 1833-35 assured that United States coins would be second to none in terms of technology.
It was Peale, in fact, who supervised the final installation of the Charlotte Mint's machinery. He arrived there with his daughter Anna in the early fall of 1837. By November 13 all connections had been made, and the mint was essentially ready for business. The final cost of building the mint came in at $56,412.20—an overrun of just 13%. This had been due to flaws in the original and revised plans which only on-site judgments could correct. All parties seemed satisfied with the job as completed, with the possible exception of Samuel McComb, who received a mere $668.87 for more than two years work. A bill was introduced in Congress to grant him additional compensation for his excellent performance, but it failed to pass.
With all installations completed, it was expected that coining operations could commence before the year was closed. The mint's first superintendent, John H. Wheeler, furnished a press release to area newspapers on December 4, 1837 announcing that the mint was ready to begin receiving deposits of gold bullion. Nearly three months later, however, no coins had yet been produced. On February 23, 1838 Superintendent Wheeler wrote a letter to Coiner John R. Bolton inquiring as to the delay. Bolton notified Wheeler that he had simply not yet received any ingots from Assayer Dr. J. H. Gibbon. (Unlike at the Philadelphia Mint, where the roles of assayer and melter-refiner were separated, at the Charlotte Mint Dr. Gibbon was overwhelmed with both tasks and simply couldn't do all the work himself). Investigating further, Superintendent Wheeler discovered that a similar situation was holding up production at the Dahlonega Mint.
No solution was at hand, however, and it was not until March 27, 1838 that the first coins were struck at the Charlotte Mint. These consisted of half eagles, valued at five-dollars apiece. Unfortunately, due to a curious practice imposed on the new southern mints by U. S. Mint Director Robert M. Patterson, the fresh coins couldn't be paid out until duplicate assays of each gold deposit had been performed at the Philadelphia Mint, a process which could easily take weeks. It was not until May 2 that the first Charlotte coins were finally transferred from the coiner to the treasurer for payment to depositors. The minting of quarter eagles, valued at $2.50, followed later in the year. A total of 7,880 quarter eagles were eventually added to the 17,179 half eagles dated 1838, and these coins comprised the entire output of the Charlotte Mint during its first year of operation.
The quarter eagles dated 1838-C and 1839-C, and the half eagles dated 1838-C, were all of the Classic Head Liberty type. The final work of U. S. Mint Chief Engraver William Kneass (1824-40), this design had been introduced in 1834. Each Charlotte gold piece bore a small letter 'C' beneath the bust of Liberty. When the Classic Head type was succeeded by the Coronet Head Liberty in 1839, the mintmark was transferred to the reverse of each coin, appearing beneath the eagle. Quarter eagles of this type were not minted until 1840, but both denominations carried this durable design, the work of Christian Gobrecht (chief engraver 1840-44), through the end of coining operations at the Charlotte Mint.
Quarter eagles were struck at Charlotte for every date from 1838 through 1860, with the exception of 1845, 1853, 1857 and 1859. The totals produced each year varied from a low of just 3,677 pieces in 1855 to as many as 26,064 in 1843. In an era when the Philadelphia Mint might produce more than a million quarter eagles in a single year, it's obvious that all such coins from the Charlotte Mint are scarce to rare.
The record mintage of 1843 resulted in two major varieties. The rarer of these features a small date with numeral 4 having a distinct serif, or crosslet, at the end of its horizontal member. More commonly seen is the variety with a large date having a plain style 4.
Half eagles were likewise coined at Charlotte in nearly every year of operation. The sole exception was 1845, when the mint was still under repair from a catastrophic fire which had nearly destroyed it the year before. The greater utility of the half eagle and its more widespread popularity with depositors resulted in generally higher mintages than for quarter eagles. The record for production was set in 1847, when 84,151 five-dollar pieces were coined. Mintages rarely fell below 10,000 pieces annually, though a mere 6,879 half eagles were struck in 1861, the final year of operation.
1840 was a transitional year at the U. S. Mints, and 1840-C half eagles are found with two slightly different diameters, the broad pieces being far scarcer. The 1842-C issue was minted with both small date and large date obverse dies, and the small date variety is a major rarity.
The Charlotte Mint never produced eagles ($10 pieces) or double eagles ($20), nor did it strike the curious three-dollar pieces, but Charlotte did contribute to the coining of gold dollars. Authorized by the Act of March 3, 1849, this diminutive coin debuted that same year. Coined in part to utilize the vast amounts of gold coming from new discoveries in California, the gold dollar was also belated recognition of the Bechtler Family's success with this useful denomination.
The first type of gold dollar featured a bust of Liberty wearing a coronet. At just 13 millimeters diameter, these coins were simply too small to be practical, and the size was increased to 15mm in 1854. The new type displayed a portrait of Liberty adorned with a Native American headdress. This design was modified slightly in 1856 to strike up more fully. All three styles of gold dollar featured a simple wreath reverse.
Charlotte struck gold dollars annually from 1849 through 1859, with the exception of 1854, 1856 and 1858. Mintages averaged over 10,000 pieces per year, though several years were below that figure. The lowest production occurred in 1859, when just 5,235 gold dollars were coined. The highest figure was the 1851 mintage of 41,267 pieces. The 1849-C variety having an open wreath is an important American rarity, with just a few examples known.
One of the most significant events in the history of the Charlotte Mint occurred early in the morning of Saturday, July 27, 1844. Superintendent Green W. Caldwell had been ill on Friday and was not present when a fire was discovered. Small and contained to a single room, the fire could have been extinguished by the reservoir of water used to supply the boilers, but no one took the initiative to do this. Nearly the entire structure was destroyed and much of the machinery damaged. Fortunately, the mint's bullion supply had been removed for safekeeping to the Branch Bank of the State of North Carolina, and the treasurer's account books had been spared destruction.
There were many recriminations following this costly fire, though no satisfactory explanation for its cause was ever proved. Superintendent Caldwell maintained that his quarters had been robbed and that the fire was set by the thief to cover his tracks. A black servant named Calvin was briefly held as the suspected thief, but he was later released.
The issue of rebuilding the mint was not a straightforward one. There had been many opponents to its creation in 1835, and the question once again became a political football. The patience of the region's miners grew thin when no action had been taken even months after the fire. A Miner's Convention was held in Charlotte on October 8, 1844 with the goal of presenting a united front for the rebuilding of the mint. It was not until after the general election of that year, however, that the climate was finally right for taking action. After the appropriate estimates for repairing the structure and machinery had been prepared, several more months of debate resulted. The expenditure was not authorized until March of 1845, and the construction contract was awarded April 16. One curious provision of the appropriations bill specified that the Charlotte Mint could have just a single coining press!
All machinery had been sent from Philadelphia by December of 1845, and George Eckfeldt was dispatched to Charlotte to oversee its installation the following spring. Though the structure was still incomplete, all that was delaying the resumption of coining operations at that point was the absence of bricks for the furnace; these arrived on May 11. A new coiner had to be appointed, too, since Mr. Bolton had died the previous July 4. Emmor Graham succeeded Bolton in August of 1846, and coining was resumed in October using deposits received shortly before the fire.
A few years later, on December 7, 1854, another fire broke out on the mint's roof. Fortunately, this blaze was quickly contained, and the mint was saved. Since it was a spark alighting on the structure's shingled roof which had started the fire, Superintendent Caldwell took this opportunity to petition Mint Director James R. Snowden for a fire-resistant metal roof. Ultimately, however, it was a tremendous conflagration of an entirely different kind which determined the last role which the Charlotte Mint would play—war was coming.
The election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in November of 1860 set off a chain reaction among the southern states. Beginning the following month with South Carolina, each one seceded from the union, turning its back on the federal government. North Carolina did not officially secede until May 20, 1861, though it was evident early on that its destiny lay with the South.
For a time it was business as usual at the Charlotte Mint. The dies for 1861's coinage were shipped from Philadelphia on December 13, and Superintendent Caldwell continued to submit his monthly reports. Funds for the mint's operation were forwarded to Charlotte through March of 1861, after which time all formal communications ceased. When war broke out on April 12, it was just a matter of time before the United States Mint would fall into Confederate hands. A detachment of North Carolina militiamen arrived eight days later under the leadership of Colonel John Y. Bryce. Bearing orders from Governor John Ellis, Bryce demanded that Caldwell surrender the mint and all its assets and deposits to the State of North Carolina.
Despite their support for the southern cause, the business and banking community of North Carolina petitioned the governor to permit continued operations of the mint under its trained personnel. In this they were joined by Superintendent Caldwell, who advised Governor Ellis that much of the mint's bullion fund was not in a state of refined metal and could be lost if handled by unskilled persons. The governor saw the wisdom of these views and the value of the mint to the community, and with that in mind he replied to Caldwell on April 2, 1861: "Reposing every confidence in your well known devotion to the cause of the South, and the interest of North Carolina, I request that you will take charge of the Mint at Charlotte."
Though one of the North Carolina troops was posted as a sentry at the mint, it otherwise resumed normal operations. The first deposits of gold under the new state authority were received May 1, 1861. The final deposits were taken just three weeks later, on May 21. It's not known whether depositors simply stopped bringing bullion to the mint or Caldwell declined to receive any more. In any case, nearly all depositors had been paid off by the end of that month. As the fiscal year came to a close on June 30, the mint held just over $4,000 in gold coin, and this was in reserve to provide for employee salaries and the few remaining depositors. The mint had been turned over to the Confederate States of America three days earlier, and it was redesignated an assay office on August 24.
The employees were paid through the third quarter of 1861, when the mint officially ceased to exist as such. On October 12 CSA Treasurer Christopher Memminger instructed Superintendent Caldwell to relinquish all gold and silver assets of the former Charlotte Mint. These were to be tendered to Assistant Treasurer B. C. Pressley in Charleston. Thus, the mint served as an assay office in name only, evidently taking no further deposits.
The structure was used early in the Civil War for the rolling of copper sheets for the manufacture of percussion caps. The mint's basement and outbuildings were also used during the war for the storage of naval supplies shipped there from Norfolk, Virginia. Some use of the mint was made by local citizens for various social functions, this building being one of the grandest in Charlotte. Only a skeleton crew remained to man the facility, though Superintendent Caldwell continued his running of it under the CSA until his death on July 10, 1864.
After the war ended in 1865, the mint building was used as a United States military post for about two years. It reopened as a federal assay office in 1867 with Dr. Isaac W. Jones as its superintendent. The General Assembly of North Carolina petitioned Congress to resume coining at Charlotte in 1873, but it was already evident that the regional mines were playing out. The former United States Mint at Charlotte never again produced a single coin.
As deposits of gold continued to dwindle, the Treasury Department ordered the closure of the Charlotte Assay Office in 1913. It stood vacant for four years and was then used as a meeting place for the Charlotte Woman's Club from 1917 to 1919 and as a Red Cross station during World War I. It also saw some use as a federal court house, though later plans to convert it to a public school fell through.
While the mint building had once stood alone on the edge of a wilderness,
it was now surrounded by urban development. The new post office had been
built next door in 1895, and its planned expansion in 1932 threatened the
old mint. The heroic salvation of this historic structure by the citizens
of Charlotte preserved for future generations an important piece of the
American story. For numismatists this landmark holds even greater value
as the birthplace of some of the most desirable of United States coins.
Birdsall, Clair M., The United States Branch Mint at Charlotte, North Carolina: Its History and Coinage, Southern Historical Press, Inc., Easley, SC, 1988.
Bowers, Q. David, United States Gold Coins: An Illustrated History, Bowers & Ruddy Galleries, Inc., Los Angeles, CA, 1982.
Wilkinson, Henrietta H., The Mint Museum of Art at Charlotte: A Brief
History, Heritage Printers, Charlotte, NC, 1973.
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