History is alive and well and still producing awe at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City as museum staff and a host of volunteers fire up the iconic Coin Press No. 1 after nearly a year of it being out of commission.
“I think often times when people go visit a museum, they have an impression that it’s a static object sitting behind glass that you can’t touch and can’t interact with,” Museum Director Josh Bonde said Tuesday. “One of the really unique things about Coin Press No. 1, in addition to its own historical story, is that it is still alive. You can still come here. Our volunteers interact with it. Guests can interact with it. You can actually get something off of this machine…
“You can almost put yourself back in 1875 and hear the machines thumping away and envision the smokestacks going. This is as close as we’re going to get.”
Myron Freedman, former museum director and now administrator of the Nevada Division of Museums and History, put it another way.
“To really engage people in history, the best thing would be to transport them to the past and let them take a look for themselves. That is not possible,” he said. “This is absolutely the next best thing. You see the historic machine in its original setting producing what it originally produced, on silver, and you get to take that away with you — that connection to the legacy of minting here in Carson City.”
Freedman, Bonde, Exhibit Program Manager Laurel Weil, Coin Press Program Manager Kelly Brant and Coin Press volunteer Woody Davis gave the Appeal a tour of the coin press exhibit as well as other parts of the historic Mint building on Carson Street that now houses the museum. The coin press will be in operation Saturday for reproductions of the 1870 “Seated Liberty” half dollar.
“So that would have been the first half dollar minted on this press in 1870,” said Freedman. “Reproduction has an added element of interest because we specifically got Nevada silver for the medallion.”
That silver comes from existing Nevada mines, not from the Comstock, Freedman clarified. The public can purchase planchets — blank coins — and watch volunteer adjusters and coiners mint them with Coin Press No. 1. From April 21 to 23, the museum will also be offering medallions for the city’s Mark Twain Days Festival, complete with the distinctive “CC” mark.
“It’s got a likeness of a young Mark Twain from the days he would have been here in the city,” said Bonde.
Like something out of a Twain story, the coin press is a character itself, with quirks and setbacks and reinventions. It is an artifact of America’s industrialization still producing after more than 150 years thanks to its aforementioned stewards.
According to Freedman, the coin press was state of the art in its time, a Morgan & Orr six-ton coin press distributed by the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. The Carson City Mint produced silver and gold coinage from 1870 to 1893 with a total of three presses. For the Mint’s first five years, however, Coin Press No. 1 was it.
“All of the Carson City minted coins from 1870 to 1874 were made on this machine,” Freedman said. “And it still operates today, and it’s in its original mint.”
Davis pointed out the press took a dozen men to build, over several months, because they had no power tools.
“These were complicated machines,” he said. “It weighs 12,000 pounds. That’s three Toyota Corollas.”
Davis said Coin Press No. 1 “came in pieces,” shipped south through the Caribbean, transported by train across the Isthmus of Panama, then shipped up to San Francisco. He said this first wave of coin presses revolutionized “money making volume.” A strike press in Austria, for example, could produce six to eight coins a minute, while a screw press in Mexico City could produce four or five a minute, Davis said. Coin Press No. 1, on the other hand, could produce a hundred silver dollars a minute or 125 dimes a minute.
Davis described how this facilitated expansion in the arid West.
“Because of the Comstock, all of a sudden you have thousands of people moving into this area over the hills, but no money to do business with. How do you do business if you don’t have any coins?” Davis said.
This was the reason Abraham Curry, the so-called father of Carson City, was able to get a mint in the city when only a handful of mints were operating around the country at the time, Davis said.
“Of all the mints, open or closed, this is the only one still in its original building with its original press,” said Davis. “Philadelphia can’t say that. San Francisco can’t say that. Just us. That’s why we’re enthused about this machine. This is such a historical artifact in the world of business.”
For the first phase of its life, Coin Press No. 1 was steam powered. The mint building was constructed in a way to support it.
“Eventually all the wheels and everything went back to the power plant in the basement, and that was wood-fired,” Freedman said. “There used to be stacks of cord wood in this lot right across the street that they would feed to the machine. And it stunk, and it smoked up the ceiling. This was a factory, was what it was.”
Freedman said the entire operation involved melting, annealing and cutting bullion for coinage. Weil added that structurally speaking, the press was so heavy that arches were constructed in the basement as reinforcement.
“The building itself carries a lot of physical evidence of its past life,” she said.
In 1877, Coin Press No. 1 cracked. It was too heavy to ship to the East Coast for repair. Fortunately, down the street from the Mint was a 49-man casting plant for the V&T Railroad, and workers there agreed to fix the press, according to Davis. When repairs were done in 1878, the workers attached a V&T plaque to the press.
“These guys are such wild men,” Davis said. “The government is way back there, and they’re 3,000 miles out here, and they put their own name on a federal machine: V&T Railroad Works, Carson City, Nevada, 1878.”
That audacity might have saved the machine. When the Carson City Mint closed near the end of the 19th century, Coin Press No. 1 was eventually moved to Philadelphia and converted to electric power. In the 1950s, after the Mint in Carson had become a museum, museum officials got a call saying Coin Press No. 1 was going to be discarded. The press was identified by the V&T plaque and returned to Carson.
“Our mission is to keep this thing running, to keep it performing so this mint can still flourish,” said Davis.
Though in good shape, the coin press still needs occasional repairs. In a twist of fate, the museum now turns to the Nevada State Railroad Museum for help. That museum’s restoration supervisor, Chris de Witt, knows his way around historical machinery.
“It was masterful watching Chris and Laurel and their team without an instruction manual,” Bonde said of Coin Press No. 1’s latest repair.
Weil noted the historical connection between the train museum and the V&T workers who once saved the machine.
“There’s a history there,” she said. “Full circle.”
For information about the coin press or the museum, visit https://www.carsonnvmuseum.org/exhibits/historic-carson-city-mint/.
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