By Victor Bozarth for PCGS ……
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In this three-part series on the New Orleans Mint, I’ll first discuss the establishment of the mint and operation up until 1849. In part two, I will discuss the mint prior to and leading up to the Civil War. In part three, I will discuss the rich reincarnation of the New Orleans Mint from 1879 through 1909.
Part One: Establishment of the Mint in New Orleans
The New Orleans Mint, much like the city where it was built, boasts incredibly rich history. Personally, I’ve gotten to visit New Orleans four times over the last 45 years. The city itself has rich multicultural roots and history. Despite periodic floods and the corresponding reconstruction often needed, New Orleans always retains its historical character. Indeed, the city continues to endure.
Prior to the Civil War, New Orleans was the fifth-largest city in the U.S. In addition, New Orleans boasted more foreign trade than any other U.S. port at that time. Because of the immense trade the city generated, there was a substantial base of wealth, too. These were among the most compelling reasons that made New Orleans a good branch mint site.
Besides the convenience of location and better access to the Midwest and South for coinage distribution, there was also gold and silver bullion available (more conveniently) from Mexico. Remember, up until this time, foreign coinage circulated heavily in the United States. Especially in the Western states in the first half of the 19th century, small change was a mystery in terms of availability and real value. New Orleans was a good spot.
“On June 19, 1835, the city of New Orleans presented the United States government with a prime parcel of land for the Mint structure. In September 1835 the cornerstone was laid,” states Q. David Bowers in The History of U.S. Coinage. When completed in 1838, the large, three-story structure boasted a building front of 280 feet facing Esplanade Avenue.
And yet, there were problems almost immediately. When you build in a swamp, there will be issues.
While the convenience of New Orleans near the confluence of the Mississippi River with the Gulf of Mexico was a boon for trade, logistics (because of weather and location) have always caused problems. William Strickland, a Philadelphia-based architect, had designed the Philadelphia Mint, the Second Bank of the United States, and both the Charlotte and Dahlonega Mints prior to his work on the New Orleans Mint.
Strickland would be responsible for the architectural designs of our nation’s first four mints. His iconic work, while highly successful in all his other endeavors, met challenges in New Orleans he wasn’t prepared for. Strickland never visited New Orleans, nor did he supervise construction. “He was paid $300, for which he provided four watercolor and ink drawings and 16 pages of specifications,” explains Greg Lambousy in his excellent article on the Mint in the March 2003 issue of The Numismatist.
Additionally, Lambousy states that“weather conditions, prior to air conditioning, made life very uncomfortable. In fact, all the original mint officials, appointed in 1838 ‘were replaced by the following year.’ “Operations ceased between August 1 and November 30 ‘on account of the sickly season,’ which was a reference to an outbreak of yellow fever. ‘Two mint officials died, and the others left office.’ Less than six months into operation, the New Orleans Mint was crippled by disease. Heat and humidity were a discomfort for workers, but the product suffered too.”
Hard Times Tokens generally depict some type of fiscal policy message. While they were a product of the political and economic turmoil of the period, they most importantly served as much needed small change for commerce.
Who hasn’t bought an O-Mint dollar at some point with die rust? Die rust is the term for the tiny raised bumps sometimes on the surface of Brilliant Uncirculated Morgans caused by rust on the dies themselves. New Orleans is hot and steamy. One has to wonder about the notoriously weak strikes on many New Orleans Morgan dollars. Did the heat lead to lackadaisical workmanship? This die rust is quite well known on many of the silver New Orleans issues besides dollars, too.
Incidentally, this die rust is evident on coins of many of our U.S. mints. Especially during the summer months, Philadelphia often had issues with production due to the heat. Coinage from both San Francisco and Carson City, too, are no strangers to die rust on some coinage.
Many don’t realize just how much influence Andrew Jackson, as our seventh president, had on the coinage of the 19th century. Jackson was responsible for our first three U.S. branch mints – all in the South. Yes, gold was found in North Carolina and Georgia, but for commerce wouldn’t one of the larger Great Lakes cities have been desirable, too? What about one of the great Midwest cities along the Ohio, Missouri, or Mississippi Rivers?
No. Jackson was a strong-willed and often resentful man. From an early point in his legal career, Jackson felt that the financiers of the Northeast wielded too much influence that adversely affected the economy of the Southeast and the Southern expansion.
The early history of the New Orleans Mint is quite sketchy. Yes, records were kept, but structural and environmental issues all contributed to a general lack of information on the early years of the Mint. In addition, when the Mint “was taken into trust” in December 1860 by the Secession Convention and Confederate States of America, records and their storage would have certainly suffered.
Records were destroyed. Curiously, one of the mint officers retained by the Confederacy was actually a Union spy. Melter and refiner M.F. Bonzano, M.D., was a Union spy whose reports on the Confederate operation of the mint to the U.S. Treasury Department are in the National Archives. Most of the New Orleans Mint’s officers retained their positions at the Mint once they confirmed their allegiance to the CSA. I’ll discuss the decade prior to the Civil War in part two.
Let’s go back to the beginning and look at the builders and early administrators at the New Orleans Mint. Construction of the Mint began in 1835 using Strickland’s design. Both Benjamin F. Fox, a master carpenter and joiner, and John Mitchell, a master mason and builder, supervised the construction. The project was completed and operations commenced on March 8, 1838, with the deposit of gold bullion from Mexico. On May 7, 1838, the first coins, 30 dimes, were struck at the New Orleans Mint.
The New Orleans Mint building of red brick faces north onto Esplanade Avenue. The physical location is at one of the two river corners of the original French Quarter. Originally, the site had been occupied by Fort St. Charles – the largest of five fortifications surrounding the city. In 1821 when the fort was demolished, the land was deeded back to the city and made into a park named Jackson Square.
In 1835, the land was returned to the federal government for construction of the new New Orleans Mint. There was a stipulation in the “gift” from New Orleans to the federal government that “the land/building must be used as a U.S. Mint for the federal government to retain ownership from the City of New Orleans.” This “stipulation” was relevant when the U.S. decided to reopen the Mint in 1878. I will explain further in part three.
The cornerstone of the new mint building was laid on the foundation of Fort St. Charles. At the front, the Ionic-columned portico has four monumental columns flanked by square pillars at each end. The building itself is a squared “U” shape with the administration offices in the main core of the facility with two flanks extending to the south from both ends surrounding an open central area.
Issues with the foundation and the swampy lowland and high water table, normal for the area, were apparent from the start.
In the early 1840s, James Gallier, Sr., a well-known New Orleans architect, commented “the whole structure threatened to become a mass of ruin. I was called on in a great hurry to devise some method of averting the danger. I caused to be inserted strong iron rods from outside to outside of the building in each direction, by shoring up the rods, they having screw knuts and outside plates, the building rendered perfectly secured.”
Not so fast! Shortly after Gallier’s repairs, another well-known New Orleans architect, James H. Dakin (he designed both New Orleans St. Patrick’s Church and the Louisiana Arsenal), was asked to examine the repairs. He “found them liable to fall at any moment.” The arches were rebuilt on May 13, 1845, according to his specifications.
In 1854, Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard, a West Point graduate engineer and Louisiana native, was hired by the federal government to renovate the building. In conjunction with Captain Joseph K. Duncan, Beauregard supervised fireproofing, renovated stone arches supporting the basement ceiling, and installed masonry flooring. We’ll return to Beauregard in part two.
Bowers in his History of U.S. Coinage also states that during this period of renovation, the Mint’s heavy machinery was converted to steam power, thus requiring a smokestack (for fumes) be built at the rear of the structure. “Initially presses at the New Orleans facility were operated by hand power. In 1845 the first steam press was installed.” The smokestack was built sometime after 1845, but most likely before the 1854 renovations.
The early administrators at the New Orleans Mint included Superintendent John Kennedy, whose tenure began in 1839 and ran through 1850. Kennedy and his family were housed in the Mint building. Sometime in the late 1840s, Eliza Ripley, a New Orleans socialite, attended a debutante ball held at the Mint building by Superintendent Kennedy for his two daughters Rose and Josephine. Ms. Ripley commented that the Mint “was made ample for the gay festivities” and “these preparations gave a rather regal air to the whole affair.”
Apartments for higher-ranking Mint officials weren’t unusual. One of the more controversial characters present early at the New Orleans Mint was the second melter and refiner John Leonard Riddell. Riddell served from 1839 to 1848 and was no stranger to controversy. At one point, he was accused of being unable to perform a proper gold melt. In addition, he was also accused of killing his wife, who died in their Mint apartment.
Yet Riddell had talent, too. He invented the binocular microscope and wrote several books. In a great example of boosting efficiency at the Mint itself, Riddell invented a rotary ingot machine, which increased the average silver melt (from 3,000 to 8,500 ounces) and reduced the manpower needed to do it. Riddell also wrote two numismatically related works: Monograph of the Silver Dollar, Good and Bad, Illustrated with Facsimile Figures in 1845 and an article for the De Bows Review entitled “The Mint at New Orleans – Processes Pursued of Working the Precious Metals-Statistics of Coinage, Etc.” in 1847.
Head of the coining department for much of the 1840s was Philos B. Tyler. Tyler patented a table for counting silver dollars, which had been invented by his brother Rufus before his untimely death. Tyler was also instrumental in helping to manufacture the first American steam-operated coin press. Many new changes and innovations in minting technology were being implemented in New Orleans. I’ll discuss Tyler further in part three.
The New Orleans Mint produced 472 million silver and gold coins with a face value of $307 million. In part two of this three-part series on the New Orleans Mint, I will expand on the history from the late 1840s up until the early Civil War. I will also discuss the confiscation of and operation of the New Orleans Mint by the Confederate States of America.
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Bowers, Q. David. The History of U.S. Coinage – As Illustrated by the Garrett Collection. Bowers and Ruddy Galleries, Inc. (1979)
Breen, Walter. Walter Breen’s Complete Encyclopedia of U.S. and Colonial Coins. Doubleday. (1988)
Lambousy, Greg. “The Mint at New Orleans”, The Numismatist. March 2003. PP. 36-43.
Winter, Doug. New Orleans Mint Gold Coins: 1839-1909. A Numismatic History and Analysis. Bowers and Merena Galleries. (1992)
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