In 1965 the retired mint at Carson City, Nevada was brought to life once again, albeit indirectly. A nationwide shortage of coins, which had been building since the early 1960s, reached a peak in 1964-65, and every available resource of the United States Mint and its auxiliaries was called into service. The San Francisco Assay Office, which hadn't functioned as a mint since 1955, was set to work punching blanks for shipment to the Denver Mint, using old ammunition presses leftover from World War II. When this still proved insufficient to meet the demand for fresh money, San Francisco was authorized to begin striking coins again. With its presses having been shipped to other facilities years earlier, this created a bit of a problem. To the rescue came the old Carson City Mint. Though long since deactivated and serving now as the Nevada State Museum, one of its prize exhibits was an old flywheel coin press from the 1870s. In sheer desperation, this antique was shipped to the San Francisco Assay Office and placed into service coining cents!
This is just one of the many fascinating tales associated with the United States Mint at Carson City, Nevada. Though it coined gold and silver only from 1870 to 1893, it has left American numismatics with a rich legacy. Most of its coins are scarce to rare, some of them being tremendous 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 dual character mintmark among 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 perhaps the most fabled in American history.
Though it's the state capital of Nevada, Carson City is not a large town, nor has it ever been at any time in its history. In fact, the entire area which now comprises the State of Nevada was sparsely populated during the 1860s, and this territory seemed an unlike candidate for statehood. That Nevada was made a state in 1864, before achieving the requisite minimum population, is simply a reflection of the times. With the Civil War raging it was unwise to leave the Nevada Territory, with its vast mineral wealth, seemingly neglected. Congress hastened its admission to the union simply to cement its residents' loyalty to the United States and prevent the spread of sympathy toward the Southern cause.
This was all some years away when the first settlers arrived in Eagle Valley in 1851. Taking advantage of the great migration to California, they established a trading post which thrived for just a few years. The future State of Nevada was then a part of the Utah Territory and was known as Carson County. As the Gold Rush subsided, the opportunists left and only a handful of Mormons remained. When Mormon leader Brigham Young ran afoul of federal authorities over the issue of polygamy, his followers were recalled to Salt Lake City. The land in Eagle was considered almost valueless, and it was purchased quite reasonably by a mountaineer named John Mankin.
A few years later, New Yorker Abraham Curry, disappointed to discover that land in California was so expensive, retraced his steps eastward across the Sierra Nevada Mountains. In the company of B. F. Green, J. J. Musser, Frank M. Proctor and their respective families, Curry rode north from the established community of Mormon Station to find even cheaper land in Eagle Valley. Curry and his associates purchased the entire holdings of John Mankin for $500 and a few horses.
As unpromising as the land seemed, the group set about to establish a trading post which would rival that of Mormon Station (now the town of Genoa). Curry had bigger plans, however, and he sought to create an actual town. The scheme seemed improbable, yet it was here in 1858 that Curry founded Carson City, named for the heroic mountaineer and trailblazer Kit Carson. It was about this time that the western portion of the Utah Territory was designated the Territory of Nevada, and Curry's scheme no longer seemed so foolish. After the discovery in 1859 of the Comstock Lode, one of the richest deposits of silver ore ever found, the success of Carson City was assured. It soon became the territorial capital and grew rapidly over the next few years. When Nevada became a state in 1864, Carson City was naturally named its capital. As the town's biggest real estate holder, Curry prospered accordingly.
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. He was largely ignored by all parties, 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 already cited, the committee pointed out that much of the refined metal emanating from the San Francisco Mint, whether in the form 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 the its product within the USA thus, somehow, saving the Treasury $500,000 annually. The exact cause and effect relationship of this 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 that 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 all the mines, Curry noted, 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 its proximity to the mining regions.
Delays imposed by the ongoing Civil War held up the mint's progress, though a lot was purchased in February of 1865. Chosen on Bennett's recommendation, it was acquired from James L. Riddle and Moses and Margaret Job. A commission to oversee the building of the mint was appointed by Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch on December 27, and it included Abraham Curry, Henry F. Rice and John H. Mills.
When it seemed that there would be no further delays, a movement was started to replace the proposed mint with a federal assay office which, of course, would not actually mint coins. Nevada Senators James Nye and William Stewart stepped in to thwart this action by renewing the original authorizing legislation, which their opponents were claiming had lapsed due to inactivity. Nye and Stewart managed to revive the mint and extract an authorization of $150,000 for its construction.
There remained some lingering opposition within the Treasury Department itself, and it was not until July 17, 1866 that the promised plans and authorizing documents finally arrived in Carson City amid much public celebration. By this time Curry had managed to have himself named as contractor, a decision he would ultimately come to regret. This was all in the future, of course, and the breaking of ground was undertaken the very next day with great gusto. The cornerstone was laid September 24, once again with considerable fanfare.
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. Concerned, Mint Director William Millward visited the construction site himself that same year. Despite the misgivings of J. M. Eckfeldt of the San Francisco Mint, who accompanied Millward, the director gave the proceedings a favorable assessment in his annual report.
When work was actually being done on the mint, things went quite well, but Curry's increasing financial strains with its inflated cost, aggravated by frequent labor disputes, threatened the entire project. The shell of the structure was already in place when, on December 5, 1867, Abraham Curry journeyed to Washington to plead his case for more funds. He spent the greater part of 1868 making the rounds of both Washington and Philadelphia in his attempts to procure more money, while all the time worked continued on finishing the structure and installing its boilers and plumbing. Curry returned to Carson City a hero on September 11, though another few weeks would pass before he actually received enough money to complete the building.
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 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 project began.
While Curry and his workmen waited out the winter, a bill appeared in Congress which would prohibit the refining and assaying of metals at the branch mints, effectively rendering them useless. After protracted debate, this legislation ultimately died, but it did nothing to bolster confidence in Carson City. Another problem arose when it became evident that the skimpy salaries authorized by the Treasury Department, figures deemed sufficient by eastern standards, would not be enough to procure skilled individuals to fill the role of assayer and also that of melter and refiner. Once again, the inflated western economy had not been taken into account by those living in Washington.
These problems were ultimately overcome, and Curry, who was now the superintendent of the mint, awaited impatiently for the arrival of dies from Philadelphia. 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 ones dated 1869 were no longer of any value at that point and that the dies should be dated 1870. In due course, these did in fact arrive by Wells Fargo Express, but not until January 10, 1870.
This nearly seemed an anticlimax after the events of two weeks previous. On December 28, 1869, at six o'clock in the evening, the entire area was rocked by a tremendous earthquake, the greatest anyone present could recall. Though there were a number of damaged buildings in town, the mint was not among them. Just a couple of 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 built well, 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 which dated 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.
Abe Curry opted to resign as superintendent in September of 1870 to pursue what proved to be an unsuccessful bid for the lieutenant governorship. He was replaced by H. F. Rice, and business continued as usual.
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 1873-74. For the most part, however, it was not until 1875, when all of the U. S. Mints were set to work making coins to replace the now-obsolete fractional paper currency, that pieces bearing the CC mintmark were struck in large numbers.
The small mintages of its early years were 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, of those selecting the Nevada facility, many opted to receive payment in ingot form rather than coin. Indeed, the processing of ore into bars far outweighed the coining operations. 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.
Those sympathetic to the Carson City Mint argued that the facility was inadequate to the demands being placed on it, and they petitioned Congress for money with which to expand. Additional money was needed too for the salaries of officers and the wages of workmen. The cost of running a mint in distant Nevada had been underestimated at every stage of the project's development, and this shortfall actually prompted a pay cut of 15% for non-salaried workers in 1876. The effect of such action on employee morale can easily be imagined.
Also damaging to everyone's spirits were the frequent and virulent attacks on the mint's integrity from those inclined to favor the San Francisco Mint. The San Francisco newspapers abetted this activity by printing any negative reports which came they way. A frequent victim of politics, the Carson City Mint was subject to periodic budget cuts and threats of closure. It also seemed that every congressman wanted a mint in his own district, and the high cost of minting coins in Nevada was cited as grounds for closing it and opening a new mint closer to some population center.
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 livelihoods 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 again 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 of 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 Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 had led to a run on the Treasury's gold supply, and the federal government was growing increasingly frightened by the overall economic situation. The Carson City Mint, which had been plagued by reports of corruption, some fanciful and others valid, was now viewed 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 death blow in 1895, however, when it was proved beyond any 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 of 1896. Once again, its activities were limited to the refining of bullion into ingots. The continued hopes of the community that it 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 some 22 tons of remaining 'CC' silver dollars were taken away from the mint by train, 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 to 1878, inclusive, 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 Carson City are rare that it's 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 they were auctioned off to collectors by the General Services Administration. 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 most 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.
In 1941, the old structure was salvaged to serve as the new home of the Nevada State Museum, a role in which it continues to the present day. Though threatened again by an earthquake some years ago, the building has been seismically refitted and should remain open for many years to come.
Among the museum's several exhibits is a collection of coins minted there between 1870 and 1893. Though it lacks the famed 1876-CC twenty-cent piece, one of the great American rarities, as well as the rare 1873-CC dime and quarter dollar without arrows, this assemblage is otherwise complete by date and denomination. It also includes a number of vintage dies used by the mint. One of the facility's most popular exhibits is an accurate recreation of a Nevada mine, the very lifeblood of this region during its most fabled days.
For numismatists, however, the real story of the Carson City Mint survives
in the coins produced there during the days of the Old West. The fascination
that collectors find in holding a silver dollar or gold piece bearing the
tiny letters CC is an endless one, a fascination that's renewed with each
successive generation of coin enthusiasts.
Hickson, Howard, Mint Mark CC: The Story of the United States Mint at Carson City, Nevada, The Nevada State Museum, Carson City, NV, 1972.
Winter, Douglas and Lawrence E. Culter, M.D., Gold Coins of the Old
West, The Carson City Mint 1870-1893: A Numismatic History and Analysis,
Bowers & Merena Galleries, Wolfeboro, NH, 1994.
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