The Coins of the Carson City Mint
by Ralph Heymsfeld
From its origins in the legendary Comstock Lode discovery of 1859, to the GSA sales of the 1970s and 80s, the Carson City Mint has been a central figure of modern numismatics. Although it only operated to mint coins for the 23 years from 1870 to 1893, the mint produced some of the world's most sought after and valuable coins. The mint is probably best known to collectors for the 13 varieties of Morgan Dollars it produced. However, the Carson City Mint coined eight denominations bearing the mint mark "CC" – which include most of the gold and silver denominations authorized by law at the time. Gold double eagles ($20), eagles ($10), and half eagles ($5), as well as silver dollars, half dollars, quarters, 20-cent pieces and dimes were all minted in Carson City.
The Comstock Lode epitomizes for many people the romance and quick fortunes of the American frontier. In 1859 two miners named Pat McLaughlin and Peter O'Reilly found gold at the head of Six-Mile Canyon, Nevada. History can be a little unclear as to what happened next, but the two were apparently joined by fellow miner Henry Comstock who said that the men had been prospecting on his property and laid claim to the find. After some negotiation, Comstock convinced McLaughlin and O'Reilly to add his name to the claim, he became superintendent of operations his name associated with the claim.
Early operations at the mines were somewhat hampered by thick bluish-gray mud that clung to boots, wheels, picks and shovels. Tests showed that the mud was actually silver ore worth more than $2,000 a ton. The silver from the Comstock load was enough to send global silver prices plummeting, quite literally changing the course of history.
Silver and gold from the Comstock Lode were shipped by rail over the Sierra Nevada mountains to the San Francisco Mint, converted to coin and then shipped back to Nevada. Not only was this arrangement somewhat inefficient, it also exposed the ore to risk of theft. Mine owners petitioned Congress to establish a mint in the Nevada Territory, the legislation for which was approved on March 3, 1863.
The building of the Carson City Mint was delayed by several factors not the least of which was the U.S. Civil War. Officials also grossly misjudged the expense of building a mint in such a remote location and the project experienced numerous funding problems.
Finally in 1870 the mint was ready for production. Wells Fargo Express delivered coinage dies from Philadelphia, on January 10, 1870. 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. Three days later, gold eagles were struck, followed by half eagles and double eagles.
In short order, the mint would go on to produce some great rarities. Low mintage numbers, and a lack of coin collectors on the frontier are two factors that contribute to this concentration of key items. Add to these factors the general demand for U.S. coins by U.S. collectors and the romance associated with the Carson City era, and we begin to develop a picture of the market value placed on some of these coins.
The 20-cent piece was the most short-lived American coin series, and the 1876-CC is one of the most cherished coins by modern day collectors. Not only were the mintage numbers extremely low for this coin, but in a letter dated March 19, 1877, the Director of the Mint (Henry R. Linderman) ordered the Superintendent of the Carson City Mint to melt down all Twenty Cents still on-hand at the time. It is presumed that most of the 1876-CC Twenty Cents were melted. It is estimated that less than 20 1876-CC Twenty Cents are in collector hands today.
There are two particularly scarce half eagles minted at Carson City. The 1870-CC half eagle had a mintage of 7,675. The numbers known today are small with very few mint examples in existence. Also hard to find of the half eagles is the 1878-CC with mintage of 9,054. Although the mintage of the 1878 is slightly higher, it is more challenging to find with mint examples virtually impossible.
The 1870-CC double eagle had a mintage of just 3,789 and it is one of the most famous and sought after of all double eagles. It is estimated that fewer than 50 examples are in collector hands today.
It is interesting to note the denominations of U.S. coins that were never minted at Carson City. These include all coins composed of copper and nickel, as well as half dimes, gold dollars, quarter eagles, and three dollar gold pieces.
The Carson City Mint seemed to always operate on the margins. In today's parlance we would call it a political football, and it was subjected to nearly constant budget cuts and threats of closure. In 1885 Grover Cleveland fired all mint employees and completely shut down the facility. The doors reopened a year later, but only to function as an assay office. In 1889, with Benjamin Harrison in the White House, Carson City resumed coining operations only to have Mint Director Robert Preston order a cessation of coining operations in 1893.
In 1899 Congresses officially downgraded the status of the mint to assay office and it continued to refine raw gold and silver ore until 1933 when in the throws of the Great Depression it was permanently closed. In 1941, the old structure was salvaged to become the home of the Nevada State Museum. It would seem that the closure in 1933 would be the end of the story, but there is in fact another chapter.
Once upon a time, when the world was younger and a bit more innocent – at least in the ways of coin collecting – the Treasury would make bags of surplus silver dollars available to banks at during the Christmas season to be purchased as gifts. In the 1950s Morgan Dollars, with the exception of a few key dates, were still relatively common and traded slightly above face. Then in November of 1962, several dates previously considered exceedingly rare were discovered in these Treasury Department Christmas bags. For obvious reasons people became much more interested in Morgan Dollars and there was a run on the Treasury's holdings. Soon all that remained were about 3,000 bags of uncirculated coins, mostly from the Carson City Mint.
What followed was a predictably politicized fiasco. President Richard M. Nixon signed a bill on December 31, 1970 authorizing the sale of the Treasury's holdings of silver dollars to the general public through a series of mail-bid sales to be conducted by the General Services Administration (GSA). Fearing a run on the coins, the GSA limited customers to one example of each date. The result of this arbitrary rule was that a few key dates sold out while most of the coins remained in surplus quantities. Approximately one million Carson City Morgan Dollars were left in GSA hands.
In March of 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation authorizing the GSA to sell the remaining Carson City Morgan Dollars. In an effort to avoid repeating its mistakes in the first sale, the GSA introduced new rules into this sale and allowed people to buy multiple coins from various years. This number was originally to be 500 but later amended to 35. There were a number of factors to the second sale that were unpopular, including a recanting not only of the original number of coins per customer, but of minimum bids which were advertised long before the sale, but were then updated when silver prices soared. However, despite any misgivings, in July of 1980 the GSA disposed of the remaining Carson City silver dollars in the government's possession.
The GSA dollars were packaged in plastic holders that look much like today's slabbed coins. At the time, dealers and collectors routinely broke the casing to remove the coin and place them into their collections. Now coins that remain untouched in their original GSA holders are sold at a premium.