It took only six years after Nevada’s annexation into the Union as the thirty-sixth state for a new mint in Carson City to begin minting what have become some of the most desirable coins in all U.S. numismatics. At the forefront of the story were many enterprising young risk-takers from still-new San Francisco, the eastern U.S., Europe, Australia and even China.
The entire story owes its rich history to what is still one of the richest silver strikes in the history of the world. Its pages are filled with rich tales of back alley politics and back room business deals by some of the Wild West’s most colorful and interesting characters.
Yet this history of Carson City and its coins begins not in Nevada, but in the neighboring state of California. In the mid 1800s, gold was discovered in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, creating a rush of people into the state seeking fortune and a better life. During the period of the great California Gold Rush, thousands of prospectors filled the once nearly-empty hills east of El Dorado. Many of these gold seekers made the perilous journey west across the open plains, ominous mountain passes, burning deserts, or took the harrowing trip around Cape Horn at the tip of South America by boat in their quest to strike it rich. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of fortune seekers t who arrived in California, everyday life proved very difficult. Disease, harsh weather and danger from thieves and scoundrels plagued the lives of these gold seekers. Very few among them ever produced enough gold to achieve sustenance, much less, great wealth.
As the Gold Rush was losing steam and the disillusioned miners began to seek their fortunes elsewhere, silver was found in Nevada. While mining for gold on the property of one H.T.P. “Old Pancake” Comstock, two gold seekers noticed that their gold rocker was forever clogged with a sticky, blue-gray mud. It was soon determined that this nuisance mud was in fact silver ore, leading to the discovery of the Comstock Lode, an enormously rich cache of silver and gold.
Unlike gold, silver mining required a myriad of expensive machinery to allow miners to dig deep into the earth to retrieve the metal, adding expenses and hardship that were not typically incurred during gold mining. Thus, of the hundreds of mining operations that were established in the early years of the Comstock Lode, only a few remained a short time later as the underfunded small operators sold out to larger concerns. These larger mine owners became fabulously wealthy and wielded enormous political power, not just in the West, but back east in Washington DC.
The silver and gold being mined from as much as a mile under the surface was being shipped back east to Philadelphia, south to New Orleans or west to San Francisco for coining. It was quite expensive and dangerous to ship such vast amounts of silver, so a movement began for a mint to be constructed in Carson City. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed Abraham Curry, Carson City’s leading proponent, as superintendent of the proposed coinage plant.
A site was determined, but a number of delays postponed the construction of the mint and thus production of coins in Carson City. The Civil War, lack of proper funding from Washington, back alley politics and even a dispute between Chinese and white laborers were just a few of the problems. After a number of years the mint was finished, and in February 1870, Curry supervised the first coins minted in the new and impressive sandstone Carson City Mint structure. By the end of the year some 92,791 silver and gold coins were coined, and many from that first year are highly collectible like the famous 1870-CC $20 Liberty.
By the end of the 1870s, however, after the passing of the Bland-Allison Act of 1878 which required the US Treasury to buy millions of dollars worth of silver from the mine owners each month, the Carson City Mint began to strike what is its most widely collected coin. The mint would produce the famous and beautiful Carson City Morgan Dollar from 1878 to 1885 and from 1889 to 1893 when at last the mint ceased production of all coins. The mint would continue operations until 1900 but only produced ingots and performed assaying services in its last years before being closed.
Today this rich history lives on in these little treasures we call “rare coins.” The most valuable of these is the unique 1873-CC Seated Liberty Dime with value estimates running as high as $3.5 million. In 1909, prominent dealers John W. Haseltine and Stephen K. Nagy sold the coin for a previously unheard level of $10,000.