In February of 1870, a sparkling new steam-powered coin press inside the United States Mint in Carson City struck its first coin, a Seated Liberty silver dollar with a crisp CC mint mark.
One hundred and forty-seven years, millions of dollars, a couple of road trips and a healthy dose of serendipity later, Press No. 1 is still pressing metal into medallions in the same building in which it started.
“It’s still in operation, still doing what it was intended to do,” said Myron Freedman, director of the Nevada State Museum, which occupies the former U.S. Mint building. “We are pretty proud to be able to use it for its historically intended purpose.”
After being down for several months for repairs, the press is expected to be back in operation in September, pressing medallions for the public’s view and purchase – but with a variation. The medallions that the press will produce will be smaller, 30 millimeters, than the silver dollar-size of past years.
The change is being made at the urging of three parties: the coin press consultant (structural engineers) from the Oakland, California-based company that repaired the 12,000-pound press; a restoration specialist at the Nevada State Railroad Museum; and independent analysts.
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They say the striking pressure required to imprint designs onto the blank coins – between 150 and 170 tons – is more than the 147-year-old press can handle. Switching to smaller medals, about half dollar sized, can be done with less strike pressure (a maximum of 110 tons) and therefore, less stress on the machine. Decreasing the tonnage will aid in the preservation of the press.
Finding replacement parts for the machine is difficult to impossible and, in many cases, the parts and tools to remove and replace them, have to be fabricated from scratch. It also creates a dilemma for historians.
“Our No. 1 priority as a museum is to protect the artifact,” Freedman said. “We love being able to produce these medallions and to share that process with the public, but we also must recognize this is an important artifact in Nevada’s history.”
Freedman said historical research has shown the press, which was built in 1869 by Morgan & Orr in Philadelphia, was designed to press at a much-lower tonnage than the 200 tons it operated at in its early years.
In 1878, it suffered a catastrophic failure, a cracked arch, which put it out of commission for a time. Machinists at the local shop of the Virginia & Truckee Railroad repaired it, and proud of their handiwork, replaced the original brass plate bearing the name Morgan & Orr with their own.
Between 1870 and 1893, the Carson City Mint produced nearly $50 million (face value) of gold and silver coins, including gold double eagles ($20) and eagles ($10), half eagles ($5), silver dollars, half dollars, quarters, dimes and 20-cent pieces.
The coin press, really the entire Carson City Mint, came about because of the mining boom in Virginia City. Most of the coins that came out of the mint were made from Nevada silver and gold.
Today, coins with the CC Mint mark are highly prized by collectors and among the most valuable in the collecting world. An 1873 Carson City dime with no arrows – the only one of its kind known to still exist – sold at auction for $1.8 million in 2012.
“Over the last 45 years, the Carson City coins have just skyrocketed in popularity in the numismatic community,” said Rusty Goe, a prominent coin dealer, collector and author of the 2003 book, “The Mint on Carson Street.”
“You can’t have any more special relic than the coin press that made these coins,” Goe said.
The historic dime was certainly pressed in Coin Press 1, which was the only press at the mint until 1875. Eventually, three coin presses operated there as demand for the coins grew.
The Carson City Mint ceased coin production in 1893 and the presses were removed in 1899. Press No. 1 was moved to the Philadelphia Mint, where it was remodeled in 1930 to operate with electric power. In 1945, it was transferred to the San Francisco Mint and renumbered “5” to correspond with its place in the coining department there.
In 1955, when all coin production was temporarily halted at the San Francisco Mint, the old press was targeted to be scrapped. If not for Frederick Monteagle, an eagle-eyed Oakland newspaperman who was also an avid Carson City Mint coin collector, the press might have ended up on the scrap heap of history.
“He’s the guy in 1958 who sent word to Nevada that they were scrapping the press,” Goe said. “We owe him a big debt of gratitude.”
With Monteagle acting as the middleman, Nevada State Museum founder Clark J. Guild and the museum board of trustees were able to buy the press for the state for $225 and it returned to its original home inside the Nevada State Museum.
For the next six years it was a popular artifact in the museum, but in 1964, U.S. Mint director Eva Adams, herself a native Nevadan, was faced with a severe coin shortage and requested the loan of the press. It was trucked to the Denver Mint and operated for the next three years, striking more than 188 million coins during that time.
In 1967, Press No. 1 returned to the Nevada State Museum for good and converted to a slower electric drive. Through the years, it has produced dozens of memorable – and collectible – medallions.
From 1975 to 1976, it produced a coin commemorating the country’s bicentennial.
“That was a very important beginning,” said Bob Nylen, curator of history at the Nevada State Museum. “Over the years, we’ve done medallions for state agencies and the public and private sector. It’s been quite a lot of projects.”
Projects for the Pony Express, V&T Railroad Reconstruction, Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial, and Nevada’s sesquicentennial and a coin commemorating the Nevada State Museum’s 75th birthday, have all been completed on Press No. 1.
One of the most memorable days for Nylen and longtime volunteer and coiner Ken Hopple, was in 2006, when commemorative coins were minted to coincide with the release of the Nevada state quarter.
A huge crowd assembled at the museum on that cold January day to acquire one of the newly minted “Spirit of the West” medallions, purchasing them as soon as they left the press.
Being able to see the historic press in action is something unique for visitors to the museum, Freedman said, and something that museum leaders want to continue.
“Thousands of visitors have been delighted to see the press in operation during demonstrations given by volunteer and local favorite Ken Hopple,” Freedman said, “and to purchase medallions in the museum gift shop.”
“Our No. 1 priority as a museum is to protect the artifact. We love being able to produce these medallions and to share that process with the public, but we also must recognize this is an important artifact in Nevada’s history.” — Myron Freedman, Nevada State Museum director
Guy Clifton is a public relations specialist, Nevada Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs.
“Our No. 1 priority as a museum is to protect the artifact. We love being able to produce these medallions and to share that process with the public, but we also must recognize this is an important artifact in Nevada’s history.”
-- Myron Freedman, Nevada State Museum director