During the winter of 1999, Cassinelli Landscaping and Construction was awarded the contract to construct a small park and plaza area between the Nevada State Museum in Carson City and the old bank building across Caroline Street. The old bank building is now the location of the museum gift shop and additional exhibit space. The Nevada State Museum building was the former United States Branch Mint from 1870 to 1893. This branch mint was established to process the vast wealth from the Virginia City Comstock mines into coins for use throughout the American West. In addition, thousands of trade dollars were minted here for trade with foreign countries. Between the two buildings had been the train yard where the Virginia and Truckee railroad delivered gold and silver bullion to the mint and shipped out finished coins for distribution.
As work progressed, my crew and I tore out the entire block of Caroline Street where the railroad yard, the blacksmith shop and foundry had once stood. We used a backhoe to remove the old curbs, sidewalks and pavement. As we dug deeper into the excavations, we started digging up rusty tools, railroad spikes, horseshoes, bricks and other old remnants of the past. Occasionally, some of the museum staff would come out and jokingly ask me if I had found any coins or silver bars yet. I always replied that I had not found any yet, but when I did, they would be the first to know. They eagerly examined the spoil pile of my excavations for any “treasures” they might find. We had to keep a security fence up around the project to keep weekend metal detector jockeys from ransacking the site. Despite our efforts, there was evidence people picked through the excavations when no one was around.
Part of the project was to construct a trash-bin enclosure using some of the original sandstone blocks from the mint foundry. Adrian O’Brien, my equipment operator, was digging the footings for the enclosure when he stopped and informed me that he had uncovered some “rusty old bearings.” I went over to see if I could identify what they were. The items he was digging up were solid cylinders of iron, slightly tapered at one end, about 2 1/2” long and 2” in diameter. They weighed nearly a pound apiece and were extremely rusted. I immediately recognized that the items were some of the original coin dies from the Carson City Mint.
I took a 5-gallon plastic bucket about half-full of the dies home with me that evening and contemplated what I should do with them. Numismatist friends of mine told me the dies with an original Carson City Mint mark were worth thousands of dollars apiece, depending on condition. On the other hand, I knew if I tried to sell any of them, they easily could be traced back to me, because I was the only one being allowed to dig up the site where they could be found. I opted to do the right thing and report the find to the museum personnel. Because they were found on state property, they rightfully belonged to the State of Nevada.
The next morning, I brought three of the rusty dies to Doug Southerland, curator of exhibits for the museum. When he saw them, his eyes bugged out and he said, “Where did you find those coin dies?”
I said, “Come outside — I have more to show you.”
I then showed Doug the 5-gallon bucket full of dies and showed him the excavation where many more were visible protruding from the sides of the trench. He told me the museum had no more than two or three of the original dies that had been used to stamp the Comstock silver and gold into coins. This had to be one of the most significant discoveries made at the museum since the branch mint was closed in 1893.
Archaeologist Gene Hattori was called to conduct an archaeological dig of the site to recover the coin dies. He brought in a team of specialists with ultrasound metal-detecting equipment and plotted several “hot spots” that showed potential of having considerable buried metal. I assisted him by using the backhoe to uncover some of these areas to reveal the artifacts buried beneath. Most of the dies were extremely rusted. A few had some lettering and stars visible, but not much detail. All had an X ground into them for cancellation — except the dime dies, which had a single slash across the face. The X, or slash, usually was placed so the date was still visible.
Gene asked me to uncover one of the “hot spots” that was especially tantalizing. When I dug down, I uncovered a large sheet of what either was tin or rusted sheet metal. Gene carefully removed the metal and exposed a nest of coin dies. They were in nearly perfect condition because the soil and moisture had not been in contact with the dies, so they hadn’t rusted. For two days he removed the dies until he felt he had recovered enough of them for study. He then asked me to use the equipment to fill in the excavations so future archaeologists could examine the site at a later date. By the time I covered up the site and paved over the area, the archaeologists had recovered more than 500 of the Carson City coin dies.
The dies included silver dimes, 20-cent pieces, quarters, half dollars, silver dollars, trade dollars, $5 gold, $10 gold and $20 gold. Both obverse and reverse (heads and tails) dies were recovered. Often, there was more than one set of dies for a denomination of the same date. Many had the date and denomination visible. A few had the “CC” mint mark visible. Many others had either a single “C” or “CC” stamped on the side of the die to identify them as dies prepared by the Philadelphia mint for use in the Carson City Branch Mint. All dies were manufactured in Philadelphia and shipped by railroad to the branch mints in those days.
The employees of the old mint obviously had canceled the dies with an X or a slash across the surface, as is required by law for any dies to be discarded. Rather than melting them down or disposing of them in some other fashion, they simply dug a hole and buried them in the ground near a shed just outside the foundry building or possibly the blacksmith shop. The dates on the dies all were in the 1870s. There was at least one large cluster of rusted dies fused together like concrete. It’s on display at the museum, as are some of the dies that have been cleaned and restored. A few of the dies in good condition actually were used to stamp some coins complete with the cancellation mark. This was discontinued when it was found the old dies could be damaged by the pressure required to stamp the coins. The museum staff was kind enough to mention my name as the person who discovered and reported the find when it prepared the display.
Occasionally, Gene Hattori gives a lecture to show the dies and to report on the progress being made on the restoration and cleaning of these amazing artifacts. Contact the museum for a schedule of these events.
Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli
This article originally appeared in the Comstock Chronicle, Virginia City, Nev.