By Carl Lester
A combination of the discovery of gold in the southeastern United States in the early nineteenth century and the subsequent political machinations resulting from this newfound wealth led to the establishment of United States Branch Mints at Dahlonega, Georgia and Charlotte, North Carolina. Officially mandated to coin “gold only” by a Congressional Act in 1835, the two branch mints soon opened for business, producing their first gold coinage in 1838. Today, their most tangible legacies, the gold coins themselves, are among the most avidly collected in all of American numismatics. This numismatic loyalty stems from the fact that these southern “gold mints” operated during America’s first gold rush, were in existence for only a short period (24 calendar years), produced relatively low mintage gold coins with very distinctive characteristics, and had as a backdrop to their demise the most turbulent conflict in American history, the Civil War. In numismatic terms, what could be more romantic?
Dahlonega and Charlotte coins often have a green-gold cast, due to the alloy’s high silver content, and are typically struck on irregular planchets. As unappealing as this may sound to the uninitiated, to Dahlonega and Charlotte aficionados these traits give the coins charm and character.
Although gold was found all the way from Virginia to Alabama, a particularly rich belt was discovered on Cherokee Indian land in Georgia, near what was to become Dahlonega, in 1828, causing a huge influx of miners. This gold belt also continued on from Georgia into North Carolina. Although several private comers, including Templeton Reid and the Bechtlers, had attempted to alleviate the problem of converting the raw gold to a more readily accepted medium, there was considerable political pressure for a universally accepted Federal coinage.
A Congressional appropriation of $50,000 was made for the construction and outfitting of the Charlotte Mint. The plans for the Charlotte Mint were drawn by William Strickland, a noted architect of the day, and were also used for the construction of the Dahlonega Mint. The mint was to be a two-story brick structure, having a basement constructed ol “good dressed” stone. The front of the “T’-shaped facility was to be 125 feet across and 33.5 feet deep. A projection extending to the rear from the center of the front portion of the building was to be 53 feet deep and 36 feet wide.
Although the plans for the Dahlonega and Charlotte Mints were the same, the Charlotte facility did not suffer the construction difficulties of its sister institution. The Commissioner of construction for the Charlotte Mint was Major Samuel McComb, who (unlike his Dahlonega counterpart) visited the Philadelphia Mint in an effort to better understand the task that lay before him. This action, combined with the fact that Charlotte, located in Mecklenburg County, was an established town, with a reliable supply of materials and labor, contributed to a fairly smooth construction process. A site was chosen near the western edge of the town and construction began in December 1835. The Philadelphia Mint sent Franklin Peale to inspect the mints at Charlotte and Dahlonega, with Peale arriving in Charlotte in late September 1837. Although Peale encountered some construction difficulties, within a month he was ready to declare the Charlotte Mint ready for operation. John Wheeler stood ready to serve as the Charlotte Mints first Superintendent.
The first coins were produced between March 26 and March 31, 1838, when 678 half eagles were struck. The Charlotte Journal broke the news, “We have the pleasure of announcing this week, that our Mint has commenced coining—there is no mistake now, for we have both seen and handled the yellow boys.” Later that year, the first quarter eagles were executed. Burgess Gaither replaced Superintendent Wheeler, a Democrat, in that position in August 1841, upon the election of Whig President William Henry Harrison and appointment by his successor. President John Tyler.
The low point in the Charlotte Mint’s existence occurred on July 27, 1844, when a fire was discovered in the wing of the building that housed the coin presses. Although the fire started slowly and there was an ample supply of water (that could have been used to control the flames) in reservoirs in the upper story of the building, the water was not used. The conflagration resulted in an almost complete destruction of the building and its contents.
After the election of 1844, Democrat President James K. Polk, with ties to Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County and a “hard money” advocate, spurred on the rebuilding of the severely damaged facility. Of the major equipment, only the steam engine and one cutting press could be salvaged. Superintendent G. W. Caldwell, who had taken over his position in June 1843, directed that the reconstructed facility have only one story above the basement. He also specified that operations could proceed with only one coining press. Superintendent Caldwell oversaw the resumption of coinage in October 1846.
In late March or early April 1847, Superintendent Caldwell resigned his position to become a Captain in the U. S. Army, during the War with Mexico. William Alexander, who directed the striking of the first gold dollars at the Charlotte Mint in late June or early July 1849, replaced him. Alexander remained at the mint until August 1849, and was followed by James Osborne, who had been appointed Superintendent by Whig President Zachary Taylor two months earlier, in June 1849. Following the election of Democrat President Franklin Pierce in 1852, former Superintendent G. W. Caldwell was reappointed to his previous position in April 1853. There he remained until the Charlotte Mint ceased operations.
In January and March 1861, two half eagle coinages were struck, amounting to 3,948 pieces. Following an order from North Carolina Governor John Ellis to turn over all mint property to the State, pending its secession from the Union, additional striking of half eagles were made in late April and late May 1861, consisting of 2,044 and 887 coins, respectively. This coinage marked the end of the facility’s history as a U. S. Branch Mint.
In its brief history, the Charlotte Mint had produced just over 1.2 million gold coins, with a face value of almost 5.05 million dollars. U. S. Treasury records show that the lion’s share of the gold (approximately 89%) came from North Carolina. About 9% came from South Carolina, while the rest (roughly 2%) was brought back by miners returning from the California gold fields.
A complete date set of Charlotte gold consists of just 50 coins, although significant die varieties can push the total higher. The Charlotte Mint issued half eagles in each year of operation (1838-1861), except for 1845, for a total of 23 coins. Quarter eagles were produced from 1838-1860, except for 1845, 1853, 1857, and 1859 (19 issues). Gold dollars were struck from 1849-1859, except for 1854, 1856, and 1858 (8 emissions). It is interesting to note that from 1856-1860, the Charlotte Mint alternated between striking quarter eagles in the even years and gold dollars in the odd years. Unlike the Dahlonega Mint, the Charlotte Mint never struck a three dollar gold piece, although a pair of $3 dies was sent to the facility in 1854.
Following its occasional use for various purposes during and after the Civil War, the structure opened as a U. S. Assay Office in the early spring of 1868. A final attempt to restore its former status as a U. S. Branch Mint failed in February 1873. However, the facility remained an Assay Office until it was permanently closed in July 1913. During subsequent years the structure was used as a Federal courthouse, headquarters for the Red Cross (during World War I), and as a meeting place for the Charlotte Woman’s Club. In 1932, plans were made to expand the adjacent Post Office building, which meant that the old mint structure would have to be demolished. Although unsuccessful attempts to save the stately old building were made, the structure was ultimately dismantled and later reconstructed in a new location in Charlotte, opening in October 1936 as the Mint Museum of Art, a status that it enjoys to this day.