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.

Still plenty of room at John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26

There’s still room to sign up for the John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26. My team and I will be cooking a delicious Dutch-oven lunch of smoked chicken breasts, buffalo chili, salad, roasted vegetables, cornbread and fruit cobbler. This should an amazing and educational event, and definitely lots of fun.

Signup information is below, as well as links to media stories with further details. Be sure to help spread the word!

Call Deborah Stevenson, Curator of Education, at 775-687-4810, ext. 237.

Learn more

To register, click here

Additional details on The Nevada Appeal website

Additional details on This Is Reno

Symposium Agenda

Sign up for the John C. Fremont Symposium, July 25-26

2014 is the Sesquicentennial year of Nevada Statehood. I can still remember celebrating the Centennial year in 1964 when I grew my one and only beard in celebration of the event. Now, it is the 150th birthday of Nevada, and I will celebrate it by growing a set of gray sideburns and cooking a dutch oven lunch for 80 people at Mills Park in Carson City on July 25th. To celebrate the event, the Nevada State Museum where I am a volunteer tour guide and part-time cook, is presenting a John C. Fremont Symposium.

One of the many events of this two-day extravaganza is a lunch like western explorer John C. Fremont may have had along the trail in 1844 when he entered our own area here in the Great Basin. I would really like to meet all those of you who read my History of the Comstock column and serve you a delicious Dutch oven lunch of smoked chicken breasts, buffalo chili, salad, roasted vegetables, cornbread and fruit cobbler.

My team and I have seasoned up about 20 Dutch ovens and are raring to serve you the greatest frontier grub this side of the Oregon Trail. Fremont’s crew used Dutch ovens for cooking on their 1843-1844 expedition through western Nevada where he discovered Pyramid Lake, Truckee River, Carson River, Lake Tahoe and disproved the myth of the legendary Buenaventura River thought to drain the Great Basin to the Pacific Ocean.

For those of you who may not know, the elusive Fremont Cannon that he abandoned along a deep creek near the West Walker River has been found. The Fremont Cannon Recovery Team found three of the cannon carriage iron wheels and the cannon mounting hardware from one side of the cannon carriage after an exhaustive search lasting several years.

It also appears the bronze 1835 Cyrus Alger cannon barrel long in possession of the Nevada State Museum is likely the same one that had been abandoned in the canyon, and was re-discovered in the mid-1800’s. It was then possibly sold where it made the rounds of several locations in western Nevada including Virginia City and Glenbrook at Lake Tahoe. Everywhere it traveled, it was referred to as the Fremont Cannon. When John C. Fremont visited Virginia City in the 1870s, he was shown the bronze barrel and identified it as the one he had abandoned in the winter of 1844.

The John C. Fremont Symposium to be held July 25th and 26th is a gathering of top Fremont scholars, archaeologists and authors from around the world, offering two days of lectures and panel discussions at the museum. You will be able to meet and talk to the members of the Fremont Howitzer Recovery Team and cannon experts who will tell about the amazing discovery of these artifacts.

Two special galleries have been set up at the Museum to contain the many artifacts and photographs from the Fremont Expedition. These include Fremont’s presidential campaign flag, maps drawn by cartographer, Charles Preuss, The original cannon carriage parts discovered near the Walker River, and a replica vintage cannon carriage with the bronze Fremont cannon mounted on it. Many of the original surveying instruments and equipment used on the expedition are shown, including the remains of a Dutch oven found at one of Fremont’s camp sites in Oregon.

Breakfast of coffee, tea and pastries will be served each day. The Dutch oven lunch that I will be serving at Mills Park will be at noon on the 25th. We are trying to arrange for a surprise presentation of some cannons firing blanks following lunch. On the 26th, the festivities extend into the evening hours with a theatrical presentation by actor Alastair Jaques in the Nevada Room at the Governor’s Mansion. This will be followed by a catered dinner at the mansion and songs of Nevada and Cowboy Poetry by Richard Elloyan, singer and songwriter, raised in Virginia City.

And now, what will all this cost? When you consider all the meals, outstanding speakers, and a chance to meet your favorite historian, (Me), the Symposium is a bargain at just $100 per person. For $40 you can attend just the dinner and entertainment at the Governor’s Mansion on the 26th. Call soon to make your reservations, since there is a limit of just 80 participants. Call Deborah Stevenson, Curator of Education, at 775-687-4810, ext. 237.

See you there.

***

Learn more

To register, click here

Additional details on The Nevada Appeal website

Additional details on This Is Reno

Symposium Agenda

The Nevada State Museum mine exhibit

Having completed several tours as a docent guiding tours for the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, I want to tell you about the unique mine exhibit at the facility. Many years ago, before I knew better, I took some self-guided tours of several of the many open tunnels and shafts around Virginia City and Gold Hill. With my kerosene lantern and a flashlight, I entered places and did things that I now know I am lucky to have survived. This was an extremely dangerous pastime and no one should venture into these old mines.

A much safer way to see and learn about the old mining methods used during the Comstock mining boom is to visit the Nevada State Museum and see the many exhibits about the Comstock. This region dominated the early history of Nevada. Many people have a natural curiosity about the mines and how things were done down there. The favorite tour for many of the school groups and adults alike is the mine that has been built deep in the basement of the museum which once was a branch of the United States Mint.

As you enter the area where the entrance to the mine is located, you pass through a replica of a typical old western mining camp ghost town. This has authentic old building fronts and artifacts that actually came from some of our abandoned mining camps. Just past the main street of the ghost town lies the entrance to the mine exhibit.

Originally opened on Nevada Day in 1950, the mine has become one of the museum’s most popular attractions. With a gift of $50,000 from the Fleischmann Foundation and many gifts of materials from people and industry, a very authentic-looking mine was created in the cavernous basement of the old mint building. It represents many of the underground mines in Nevada. The walls and ceiling are plastered with actual minerals and ore donated by several Nevada mining companies and from the Comstock.

The tunnels are timbered and braced just like those in actual mines and the floors have mine car tracks and plumbing for compressed air and water. You will cross over an elevator cage and floor from an old shaft on the Comstock. You will see a powder magazine and costumed figures preparing dynamite and fuses. There are men operating drills, loading ore carts and performing other tasks in the tunnels.

While the area for the displays was not large enough to show life-sized square-set timbers, there are miniature displays showing how this innovation was used. The square-set timbers were used in a series of 6’ cubes to support the walls and ceilings of large underground ore bodies that were encountered on the Comstock.

There is a miniature stamp mill that can be operated by pushing a button to show visitors how the cams lifted the heavy stamps and let them fall to crush the ore. Even this miniature mill makes a startling sound when it is operated. Stamp mills were incredibly noisy and the incessant clatter of hundreds of stamps running day and night had to have been an annoying experience.

Having actually been down in some of the original Comstock mines and tunnels, including Sutro Tunnel, I can tell you that there is much more to see and learn about at the Nevada State Museum mine exhibit. Fortunately, most of the dangerous tunnels and shafts have been sealed off to keep people from becoming injured or killed when entering these places. I cannot think of a worse way to die than falling down a 2,500’ mine shaft, bouncing off timbers and protruding rocks on the way down. Just entering a tunnel is equally dangerous. Rocks can cave in on top of you and often rotting planks cover unseen shafts.

A weekly column does not offer enough space for me to describe all the features of the Nevada State Museum Mine exhibit. This is something everyone interested in Comstock history should experience in person. Be sure to visit the upstairs history exhibits while you are there. There are artifacts and displays of life and mining on the Comstock as well as other Nevada mining districts including Tonopah, Goldfield and Aurora. This is a great learning experience for the entire family.

Link: Tripadvisor offers some visitor photos of the Nevada State Museum and its exhibits, including the mine exhibit.

Copyright © 2014 by Dennis Cassinelli

Originally published in the Comstock Chronicle, Virginia City, Nev.