Col. Curry leads mint toward finish line
July 25, 2014
This is the fifth part in a six-part series about the history of the Carson Mint.
In January 1869, Congress asked for an accounting of the cost of building the Carson City Mint and equipping it with machinery. Its members further asked for estimates of the mint’s revenues and expenses projected out after it opened for business. Treasury Secretary McCulloch reported that Supervising Architect Alfred B. Mullett’s year-end statement for 1868 showed that costs had climbed to more than $276,000 for building and equipping the Carson City Mint. Thus far, Congress had appropriated $250,000 for the project, meaning that Curry would need additional funds to complete his work, not to mention that the government still owed him money because he had continually paid expenses out of his own resources.
McCulloch did not give a favorable outlook for the mint’s success. He said Nevada’s silver production, per ounce, exceeded its gold output by a ratio of 32 ounces of silver for every 1 ounce of gold. He believed that the most economical and efficient refining of silver bullion and manufacturing of it into coins “must take place at [San Francisco].” Consequently, he said, “the coinage of the new branch mint at Carson City must consist almost entirely of the gold bullion found in the State of Nevada.” McCulloch estimated the Silver State’s annual gold yield at $1 million. He said the annual production at the Carson Mint would probably not exceed that amount “and that the expense of conducting the establishment will be very greatly in excess of its receipts.”
Having conveyed his beliefs that the Carson Mint would never turn a profit and the federal government would always have to subsidize it, McCulloch expressed exasperation over the Treasury having branch mints in the first place. “I cannot refrain from expressing the hope so frequently made by this department,” he stated, “that no more branch mints will be authorized by Congress.” In his opinion, “the coinage of the country should be executed in well-appointed mints, erected at commercial centres, where large amounts of bullion are deposited, and where the highest artistic skill can be commanded.” He said “two mints, one located in the Atlantic States and one in the Pacific, are sufficient to supply coinage for the whole country.” Any other of the branch mints, believed McCulloch, would “require not only the erection of expensive buildings, but [also] large annual appropriations for their maintenance, without returning corresponding benefits to the government.”
Even a year before it would stamp its first coin, it appeared as if the powers that be in Washington, D.C. would view the Carson City Mint as an unwanted stepchild, and would subject it to intense scrutiny. It did not help matters that at the same time, the government had another one of those confounded branch mints to contend with. This in the form of the one authorized at The Dalles in Oregon, of which McCulloch in his same report said “it is proposed to commence work upon the edifice immediately.” Unlike the branch in Carson City, work was suspended on the mint at The Dalles in 1870, and the structure stood uncompleted for years following, never fulfilling its original mission.
With strong advocacy from its senators in Congress, Nye and Stewart, Nevada received an appropriation in March 1869 for $74,600 to operate its mint in Carson City at the start of the new fiscal year, which began on July 1, 1869. In April, Curry received his appointment as superintendent of the new mint from President Grant. Curry, as superintendent of construction, had taken another trip back DC, beginning in late winter 1869, to once again plead his case for the need of more money to finish the project. His exploits made for lively press copy back home in Carson City. The Appeal on April 11, 1869, had this to say about him: “We don’t like to be too flattering, but Curry is about as good a [rain-] bow of promise as one generally finds looming up over the horizon of future prospects. Long may he live to rise and shine.”
Back in town earlier than expected on May 1, 1869, Curry “was greeted with many a hearty welcome and handshake,” reported the May 9, 1869 edition of the Appeal. Curry promised a full report, “after getting the alkali washed off and being rested from the fatigues of his long journey.” He had taken the overland route this time, after porting in Chicago on his way back from the East Coast.
Curry wasted no time in returning to the construction site, and by May 19, 1869, the Appeal reported that “The Mint chimney is being made to grow again,” and there were “many signs of activity in and about that building.” All thanks to the presence of “the indomitable Col. Curry.” A day later the Appeal noted that a well-known miner from those parts, Alvah Mitchell, had “come to Carson [from White Pine County, Nevada] to help Col. Curry get the Mint in order to coin” some of the “ton of bullion” he had brought with him.
Locals saw the time drawing near to when Curry would have the mint in full operation, so he could exchange his superintendent of construction hat for one that put him in charge of all the excitement that was about to take place inside the walls. Still, many details remained unresolved.
Curry sent another one of the seemingly inexhaustible letters he felt impelled to pen during the construction period to Treasury officials, in July 1869. It landed on the desk of Secretary of the Treasury George S. Boutwell, who delegated the responsibility of replying to Curry to Director of the Mint James Pollock. Boutwell instructed Pollock to order Curry to open the Carson City branch as an assay office only, until Congress appropriated more money to elevate it to coining-mint status. Curry had complained to Boutwell that his construction fund had run dry. He had no money to pay for the remaining machinery he needed or for its installation. He had also tapped all of his personal finances just to keep the work in motion, and he desperately needed at least $15,000 to cover immediate indebtedness. Boutwell told Pollock that “there is no fund out of which the expenditure already made [out of Curry’s own pocketbook] can be paid.” The only money set aside by the government for the Carson Mint was “for the salaries of officers and other ordinary expenses of the Mint after its completion” (emphasis added), and “no portion of it can be used for the purpose named by Mr. Curry.”
Somehow Curry persevered, and in the second half of 1869, his driving passion was to get the mint up and running as soon as possible.
Rusty Goe, of Southgate Coins, 5032 S. Virginia St. in Reno, can be reached at number is (775) 322-4455. For more information visit http://www.southgatecoins.com. In 2012, Rusty collaborated with the California-based rare coin auction firm Stack’s Bowers to bring to market a complete (111-piece) set of Carson City coins in history. Rusty served as the chief architect , which he christened the Battle Born Collection, in honor of Nevada. It sold at auction in August 2012 for nearly $10 million.