Because it dies, the Carson Mint lives on
During the winter of 1999, Cassinelli Landscaping and Construction was awarded the contract to construct a small park and plaza area between the Nevada State Museum in Carson City and the old bank building north of Caroline Street. The bank building is now the location of the museum gift shop and additional exhibit space. The Nevada State Museum building was the former U.S. Branch Mint from 1870 to 1893. The mint was established to process the vast wealth from the Virginia City Comstock mines into coins for use throughout the American West. In addition, thousands of trade dollars were minted here for trade with foreign countries. Between the two buildings had been the railroad spur where the Virginia and Truckee railroad delivered gold and silver bullion to the mint and shipped out finished coins for distribution.
As work progressed, my crew and I tore out the entire block of Caroline Street where the railroad yard, the blacksmith shop and foundry had once stood. We used a backhoe to remove the old curbs, sidewalks and pavement. As we dug deeper into the excavations, we started digging up rusty tools, railroad spikes, horseshoes, bricks and other old remnants of the past.
Part of the project was to construct a trash-bin enclosure using some of the original sandstone blocks from the mint foundry. Adrian O’Brien, my equipment operator, was digging the footings for the enclosure when he stopped and informed me he had uncovered some “rusty old bearings.” I went over to see if I could identify what they were. The items he was digging up were solid cylinders of iron, slightly tapered at one end, about 2 1/2 inches long and 2 inches in diameter. They weighed nearly a pound apiece and were extremely rusted. I immediately recognized the items were some of the original coin dies from the Carson City Mint.
I took a five-gallon plastic bucket about half-full of the dies home with me that evening and contemplated what I should do with them. Numismatist friends of mine told me the dies with an original Carson City Mint mark were worth thousands of dollars apiece, depending on condition. On the other hand, I knew if I tried to sell any of them, they easily could be traced back to me, because I was the only one being allowed to dig up the site where they could be found. I opted to do the right thing and report the find to the museum personnel. Because they were found on state property, they rightfully belonged to the state of Nevada.
Archaeologist Gene Hattori was called to conduct an archaeological dig of the site to recover the coin dies. He brought in a team of specialists with ultrasound metal-detecting equipment and plotted several “hot spots” that showed potential of having considerable buried metal. I assisted him by using the backhoe to uncover some of these areas to reveal the artifacts buried beneath. Most of the dies were extremely rusted. A few had some lettering and stars visible, but not much detail. All had an X ground into them for cancellation, except the dime dies, which had a single slash across the face. The X, or slash, usually was placed so the date was still visible.
Gene asked me to uncover one of the “hot spots” that was especially tantalizing. When I dug down, I uncovered a large sheet of what was either tin or rusted sheet metal. Gene carefully removed the metal and exposed a nest of coin dies. They were in nearly perfect condition because the soil and moisture hadn’t been in contact with the dies, so they hadn’t rusted. For two days he removed the dies until he felt he had recovered enough of them for study. He then asked me to use the equipment to fill in the excavations so future archaeologists could examine the site at a later date. By the time I covered up the site and paved over the area, the archaeologists had recovered more than 500 of the Carson City coin dies.
The dies included silver dimes, 20-cent pieces, quarters, half dollars, silver dollars, trade dollars, $5 gold, $10 gold and $20 gold. Both obverse and reverse (heads and tails) dies were recovered. Often, there was more than one set of dies for a denomination of the same date. Many had the date and denomination visible. A few had the “CC” mint mark visible. Many others had either a single “C” or “CC” stamped on the side of the die to identify them as dies prepared by the Philadelphia mint for use in the Carson City Branch Mint. All dies were manufactured in Philadelphia and shipped by railroad to the branch mints in those days.
The employees of the old mint obviously had obviously canceled the dies with an X or a slash across the surface, as is required by law for any dies to be discarded. Rather than melting them down or disposing of them in some other fashion, they simply dug a hole and buried them in the ground near a shed just outside the foundry building or possibly the blacksmith shop. The dates on the dies all were in the 1870s. There was at least one large cluster of rusted dies fused together like concrete. It’s on display at the museum, as are some of the dies that have been cleaned and restored. A few of the dies in good condition actually were used to stamp some coins complete with the cancellation mark. This was discontinued when it was found the old dies could be damaged by the pressure required to stamp the coins.
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog at denniscassinlli.com. All books sold through this publication will be at a 20 percent discount and Dennis will pay the postage.