Comstock-era artifacts not always what they seem

A few readers of my column have asked me to re-tell the story of some Comstock-era artifacts I found in 1999 at the former United States Mint in Carson City. The old mint building is now the home of the Nevada State Museum. In 1999 the Nevada State Public Works Department contracted with Cassinelli Landscaping and Construction to abandon a portion of Carolyn Street and construct a park and other improvements on the property adjacent to the museum.

I was appointed the project superintendent and was onsite all during construction of the project. Having worked on many other projects in Carson and Virginia City, I was not at all surprised when we began to uncover remnants of the old days in the form of horseshoes, bricks, bottles and some rusty tools and parts of machinery that had been used when the mint was in operation.

The specifications for working on state projects require that any artifacts found during construction to be turned over to the state if they are of archaeological importance. My crew was not aware of these requirements and inadvertently threw some of the bottles and rusty metal parts in their truck. It was not long before employees of the museum came out and asked us to return the artifacts, which my crew had thought was nothing more than trash.

With a renewed awareness of the requirements, the crew was more diligent when they reported to me that they had uncovered what they thought was “a bunch of old rusty bearings.” When I went over to see what they had uncovered with the backhoe, I immediately recognized them as some of the original coin dies from the Carson City Mint. Coin dies are the metal stamps that are mounted in the coin press to strike the coins in the mint. A silver or gold disc is sandwiched between the dies in the minting process to stamp the heads and tails images on the coins.

After careful contemplation of the consequences, I notified the curator of exhibits at the museum, Doug Southerland, of what I had discovered. These coin dies were in denominations of dimes, quarters, half dollar, silver dollar, trade dollar, five dollar gold, ten dollar gold and twenty dollar gold. Doug told me I could keep a few of them since I had reported the discovery to the museum staff. The archaeologists were called out to investigate the discovery and in the process, we helped them to recover over 900 of the valuable artifacts. Prior to that time, the museum had just two or three of them on display.

Most of the dies were very rusty and pitted. The archaeologists found some that had not been in contact with the soil and were not very corroded. Some had nearly complete images including dates and the CC mint marks were visible on them. All the dies had either a slash or an X cut across the face to prevent them from ever being used to strike coins again. Even so, the museum staff mounted some of them in the coin press and struck a few coins to be used as tokens. This practice was halted forever when one of the old iron dies cracked under the extreme pressure of the coin press.

The coin-die discovery was considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries ever made at the old mint building. Museum employees began making a daily ritual of coming out at the end of each day to see what other discoveries had been made. Within a few days, maintenance worker, Mark Falconer, came out and discovered a silver bar about 14” long partially buried in the soil being excavated for an underground conduit. The bar had markings stamped on it that read “U.S. Mint Carson City, Nevada 1876.” There were some other markings that the staff at the museum could not decipher, so they called in a team of experts to help break the code and to find out more about the mysterious silver bar.

Experts from the Nevada Historical Society, the Historic Preservation Office, The Smithsonian Institution and the United States Mint in San Francisco attempted to read the message stamped in small letters on one corner of the silver bar. An archaeological consultant was contacted to determine if any other significant artifacts were buried on the property. A small sample of the silver bar was drilled out to send to the University of Nevada Bureau of Mines for an assay to determine the purity of the silver. State Public Works was notified so they could shut the project down until the studies could be completed. I was told that National Geographic wanted to do an article about the treasures being uncovered.

The message on the bar went something like this: “9991-1 NOITCURTSNOC ILLENISSAC, FFATS MSN OT.” After hundreds of man hours of highly paid public employees trying to decipher the secret message, It was finally Cindy Southerland who decided to read the message backwards. When she wrote it down, it read “TO NSM STAFF, CASSINELLI CONSTRUCTION, 1-1999.” When my little prank was discovered, I was called in and handed a written letter of reprimand scolding me for the hoax and the embarrassment to all the “experts” who had worked so diligently to break the code.

The “silver” bar turned out to be a bar of lead I had lying around the shop. I had used some letter stamping dies for the secret message to make it look like a bar of silver bullion and planted it in the excavation area for someone to find. Privately, some of the museum staff told me this was the funniest thing that ever happened at the museum.