Why I’m fascinated by silver dollars

silver dollarsMy mother, Phyllis, was one of the first female blackjack dealers in Nevada. She and her sister, Clare, worked for Harold’s Club in Reno in the early 1940s. General Manager Raymond “Pappy” Smith was the first Nevada casino owner to hire female blackjack dealers to work in the clubs. His reasoning was if casinos hired female dealers, more GIs from the Reno Army Airbase would be attracted to the clubs.

In those days, casinos used composition chips as much as they do today. However, they also used the common medium of exchange in Nevada at that time, the silver dollar, for many of their table games. Winnings were paid out in silver dollars and tips and even wages were sometimes paid that way.

When I started school in Sparks, hot lunch for the week was 20 cents per day or $1 for the whole week. Every Monday, Mom, being a blackjack dealer, would give me one silver dollar for my weekly lunch. I soon noticed in addition to the Peace Dollars minted from 1921 through 1935, many were the much older Morgan dollars minted off and on from 1878 through 1904 and again in 1921.

I was fascinated so many of the silver dollars given to me for lunch money were made back in the 1800s. One day, I noticed to my surprise one of the silver dollars she gave me was a Carson City silver dollar dated 1890. I went all week without lunch and kept the old silver dollar. I can honestly say I still have the first dollar I ever saved.

Later in my illustrious career, I worked on our family farm on Glendale Road in Sparks, weeding onions and working in the potato fields. My uncle, Chester, was the bookkeeper and paymaster for the farm/ranch. At that time, wages for farm laborers was 50 cents per hour. At the end of each workday, boys I went to school with and I, along with other laborers, were paid for our work. Uncle Chester stood at the edge of the field with a cowboy hat full of silver dollars. As each worker passed by, he gave each one of us five silver dollars for the 10 hours of work.

Now, before you think we were getting ripped off back in those days, you should consider this amazing fact. If I was paid those same five silver dollars today, each one would be worth approximately $20. This means the wages for one day of work would now be $100. I could almost live on that.

In 1999, my crew and I uncovered the amazing stash of coin dies that had been buried in the ground at the old Carson City Mint building, now the Nevada State Museum. More than 500 of the rusty dies were recovered and many of them that have been cleaned are now on display at the museum. I honestly believe that were it not for my fascination for silver dollars, the buried coin dies wouldn’t have been noticed.

If you visit the Nevada State Museum, you can see the original Coin Press No. 1 that was used to mint many of the Carson City coins and also the amazing collection of one of each of nearly all the Carson City gold and silver coins ever made. On the cover of my book, Chronicles of the Comstock, are color photos of several of my Carson City silver dollars, including the unusual Trade Dollars that were coined at the Carson City Branch Mint. The book has many stories about the Comstock era and the historic old mint.

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.

Carson City Mint coin dies uncovered

colorful paver stones at the Carson City Museum
The 1999 construction project at the Carson City Museum. A cache of canceled coin dies was uncovered during the initial excavations.

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.