By David Ginsburg
On March 3, 1835, the US Congress established three branch mints: two in the gold rush areas of Charlotte, North Carolina and Dahlonega, Georgia to mint gold coins and one in New Orleans, Louisiana to mint gold and silver coins. However, unlike Charlotte and Dahlonega, which were isolated, rural communities, New Orleans in the 1830s was already the “Queen of the South” due to the volume of goods flowing up and down the Mississippi river. The city experienced dizzying growth in the first half of the nineteenth century, from a free population of about 17,000 in 1810 to 46,000 in 1830 to 102,000 in 1840. New Orleans’ only rival in America was New York, which had about seven times its population. Despite the larger city’s advantages (which included dominating the country’s import trade), the value of New Orleans’ exports surpassed New York’s in 1836 ($35.3 million versus $27.3 million) and New York was not able to regain even a slim lead in exports until 1843. In addition, during this period, New Orleans’ banking capital reportedly exceeded New York’s and New Orleans was commonly believed to be the richest city in America.
In the 1820s and 1830s, architect William Strickland of Philadelphia was one of the most famous pupils of Benjamin H. Latrobe (designer of, among other prominent buildings, the US Capitol) and a leading exponent of the Greek Revival architectural style. His experience with large public buildings, which began with the Second Bank of the United States in 1818 and included the second Philadelphia mint in 1829, made him a logical choice to design the three branch mints. While the Charlotte and Dahlonega mint buildings were identical ‘T-shaped’ two-story buildings that were 125 feet across the front, the New Orleans mint is an ‘E-shaped’ three-story building that is 282 feet across the front. The building occupies the 400-block of Esplanade Avenue and contains 90,000 square feet of usable floor space.
Of the three buildings, the Dahlonega mint building burned to its foundations in 1878, while the Charlotte mint building, which was destroyed by fire in 1844 and rebuilt as a one-story building, was dismantled and reconstructed in a new location in Charlotte in 1936, making the New Orleans mint building the only one of the three that can be visited in its original form and location today.
Congress appropriated $200,000 for the construction and outfitting of the New Orleans Mint. For $300, Strickland supplied four sheets of watercolor and ink drawings and 16 handwritten pages of construction specifications, apparently without visiting New Orleans for any site analysis. The contract for the erection of the mint was signed in August 1835 and construction began the following month. Due to a yellow fever epidemic and the difficulty in obtaining building materials, the building wasn’t completed until early 1838. In anticipation of the mint’s beginning operations, the first silver was deposited on March 8th, the first gold deposit was made on April 10th, and the first two pairs of dies (for dimes) were shipped from Philadelphia on April 9th. The first coins, 30 dimes, were minted on May 8, 1838.
As small change was in high demand in the New Orleans area, the mint devoted itself solely to producing dimes that year, coining about 367,000 in June and July. The remaining 39,000 1838-dated dimes were minted in late December and early January 1839. The 70,000 1838-dated half dimes were also minted in early January, while the 20 proof 1838-dated half dollars were probably minted in March 1839.
What followed was 70 years of the most colorful history of any of the US mints. Within five years of the building’s completion, Strickland’s failure to visit New Orleans to examine the city’s marshy soil (very different from the solid soil and bedrock of Pennsylvania) resulted in the building’s first repairs: iron rods were inserted through the building in both directions to prevent the arches supporting the floors from giving way. By the 1850s, the building had fallen into such disrepair that then Major P.G.T. Beauregard, superintendent of construction of the New Orleans Custom House, was instructed to examine the mint building and make recommendations for repairs. In May 1854, Major Beauregard recommended that at least $25,000 would be needed to make essential repairs, which were completed in June 1856. Additional work was done throughout the rest of the 1850s to make the building more fireproof.
The turn of the decade brought secession and the Civil War. On January 31, 1861, the State of Louisiana took possession of the mint and continued operations under the same staff, who swore allegiance to the State. On April 1, 1861, the Confederate States of America assumed control of the mint (the staff swearing another oath of allegiance) and housed troops there after coining operations ceased on April 30, 1861.
Following the end of the Civil War, the building was reopened as an assay office in 1876 and in 1879 the mint reopened, primarily to coin a flood of Morgan silver dollars. Coining operations continued until 1909, after which the building was put to a wide variety of uses. While the assay office continued operations until 1931, the building also served as a training station for the US Coast Guard, a recruiting station for the US Navy, an out-patient clinic for the US Public Health Service and an out-patient dispensary and various clinics for the Veterans Bureau.
In June 1931, the building was transferred to the Department of Justice for use as a federal prison, primarily to house the many violators of Prohibition in the New Orleans area. The prison was closed in 1943 and the building reverted to the Coast Guard, who occupied the building until 1965, when it was transferred to the State of Louisiana. The building is now part of the Louisiana State Museum and was opened to the public in 1979.
During the 55 years the mint manufactured coins, it produced every denomination except one of silver and gold coins of the United States and the only silver coins of the Confederate States.
|U.S. Coins Produced at the New Orleans Mint|
|Silver Coins||Gold Coins|
|Denomination||No. Produced||Denomination||No. Produced|
|Half Dimes||16,254,039||Quarter Eagles||1,205,263|
|Quarter Dollars||60,343,000||Half Eagles||924,495|
The New Orleans mint produced 415.0 million silver coins with a face value of $251.1 million and 6.4 million gold coins with a face value of $49.1 million. A complete date set of New Orleans gold coins would include 84 coins: five dollars (minted 1849-1853 and 1855), 13 quarter eagles (minted 1839, 1840, 1842, 1843, 1845-1847, 1850-1852, 1854, 1856 and 1857), one three-dollar piece (minted 1854), 16 half eagles (minted 1840, 1842-1847, 1851, 1854-1857, 1892-1894 and 1909), 36 eagles (minted 1841-1860, 1879-1883, 1888, 1892-1895, 1897, 1899, 1901, 1903, 1904 and 1906), and 13 double eagles (minted 1850-1861 and 1879). Adding significant die varieties would enlarge a complete set to 88 coins.
Among those coins are several one-year types and significant rarities. The one-year type coins include the 1855 Type II dollar, the 1839 Classic Head quarter eagle, the 1854 three-dollar gold piece, the 1909 Indian Head half eagle and the 1879 Type III double eagle. The rare coins include several eagles: 1841 (mintage 2,500), 1859 (2,300), 1879 (1,500) and 1883 (800); and, three double eagles: 1854 (3,250), 1856 (2,250) and 1879 (2,250). Many other coins are now considered scarce due to the small number surviving; it is currently estimated that perhaps only 2%-4% of the gold coins minted in New Orleans still exist.
In addition to the coins produced for the United States, the New Orleans mint also produced coins for the State of Louisiana and the Confederate States. Prior to its seizure by the State, the mint delivered 330,000 half dollars
and 5,000 double eagles (the only denominations minted in 1861), coined while the mint was still controlled by the United States. In March, the mint, under the same staff, coined 1,240,000 half dollars and 9,750 double eagles
for the State of Louisiana; and, in April, the mint coined 962,633 half dollars and 2,991 double eagles for the Confederacy. Therefore, any one 1861 New Orleans half dollar has a 13% chance of having been made by the United
States, a 49% chance of having been made by the State and a 38% chance of having been made by the Confederacy, while any one double eagle has a 28% chance of having been made by the United States, a 55% chance of having been
made by the State and a 17% chance of having been made by the Confederacy.
In addition to the US-designed coins, the mint also produced the Confederate half dollar, which featured the US obverse as its reverse and a newly designed obverse, which showed the Confederate coat of arms. Mr. A.H.M. Patterson, a New Orleans engraver and die sinker, produced one Confederate obverse die, which was used to produce four coins in early April 1861. The coins were originally presented to: Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, Benjamin F. Taylor, Chief Coiner of the New Orleans mint, Prof. John L. Riddell of Tulane University (former melter and refiner of the New Orleans mint) and Dr. Edward Ames of New Orleans. Today, one is owned by the American Numismatic Society, one is owned by the Eric P. Newman Education Foundation and the other two are owned privately.
Unnoticed (or at least not replaced) by mint personnel, the US obverse die had a crack running from the edge of the coin to Liberty’s nose. Following production of these four coins, the obverse die was placed into a coin press with a regular US reverse die and used to produce coins that show the crack increasing in size. As a result, while numismatists cannot distinguish among double eagles manufactured by the US, the State of Louisiana or the Confederacy, the US half dollars that show the increased die crack were referred to as “Confederate” halves.
Such was the situation until 2005, when, following study of some 13,500 half dollars that were struck in New Orleans in 1861 and recovered from the wreck of the SS Republic, a ship that sank off the coast of Georgia in October 1865, numismatic researcher Randall E. Wiley published an article in the November 2005 issue of The Gobrecht Journal, the official publication of the Liberty Seated Collectors Club, that documented the emission sequence and likely coining authority. He identified 16 die marriages (combinations of a specific obverse die with a specific reverse die), of which he estimated that three were used under the authority of the US, five were used under the authority of the State and the remaining eight were used under the authority of the Confederacy (one of which struck the four Confederate halves).”