The New Orleans Mint facility was the first United States Mint facility located outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It sprung from a need for gold and silver coinage to facilitate trade. Its growth was hampered by epidemics and dishonest employees. It was captured in the Civil War, returned to the Treasury Department, and eventually was closed due to inefficiencies in the operations.
History of New Orleans
New Orleans, Louisiana is built on the mouth of the Mississippi River. Native Americans of the Woodland and Mississippi cultures were the first inhabitants of this area. The explorer DeSoto passed through the region in 1542 in LaSalle and 1682. However, there were very few permanent settlers in this area. In 1718, the governor of Louisiana founded the city of Nouvelle-Orléans on a piece of crescent-shaped ground high above the Mississippi’s mouth.
In 1762, France signed a treaty seceding Louisiana to Spain. Heavy trading with Cuba and Mexico resulted in the city growing at a rapid rate. In 1803, Louisiana reverted to French rule. Later that same year, it was sold to the United States through the Louisiana Purchase. The city continued to grow and thrive throughout the 1800s as an agricultural trade center.
Planning for a New Mint
As the agricultural economy grew throughout the 1800s in the United States, New Orleans became a center of trade and commerce. Paper money and credit were no good when trading in foreign countries. Foreign trade required gold and silver. Therefore, New Orleans had long been a depot for arriving shipments of gold and silver coins minted in other countries.
Advocated by President Andrew Jackson, a bill was created to build branch mint facilities in Charlotte, North Carolina, Dahlonega, Georgia, and New Orleans, Louisiana. The Mint Act was signed into law on March 3, 1835, giving the Treasury Department the authority to create three new branch mint facilities. On May 9, 1835, the city of New Orleans seceded property to the Treasury Department to construct the new mint facility. A contract was awarded for $182,000 to execute the plans by Philadelphia Mint architect William Strickland and construction began soon after.
Early Operations 1838
The first coins were struck at the New Orleans Mint on March 8, 1838. The demand for small coins to make change dictated that dimes should be struck. The first production run produced 367,434 New Orleans minted Liberty Seated dimes. By the end of the year, 70,000 half dimes and 406,034 dimes had been made. Most of these coins were produced from melted Mexican eight reales coins and other foreign silver coins.
In 1839, an additional $118,000 was spent on an iron fence to improve the security of the facility, additional metal processing machinery, coin presses, furnaces, and other fixtures. On August 17, 1839, the Treasury Department suspended coinage operations due to irregularities on the books and inefficiencies in the coin making operations. Later that year, cholera swept through the city, killing several mint employees. In October, the mint’s superintendent and treasurer were removed from their positions by the Treasury Department. Replacements were found for the superintendent, treasurer, coiner, refiner, and other mint employees lost during the cholera epidemic.
Production Ramps Up in the 1840s and 1850s
By 1840, New Orleans was the fourth largest city in the United States and the busiest port in all of America handling more than half of the trade for the United States. Unfortunately, not enough coins had been minted in New Orleans to make a noticeable dent in commerce. By 1845, structural changes to the mint building were required due to problems with shifting and settling of the building.
Screw type coin presses were replaced with steam-powered presses. By this time, gold coins and silver bullion were driving the trade economy. In 1840, New Orleans minted its first gold and large silver coins. In 1846 59,000 Liberty Seated silver dollars were struck for the first time. In 1851, the New Orleans Mint had a record year with coinage totaling $10,122,000.
The Civil War
On January 26, 1861, Louisiana succeeded from the Union. Louisiana state troops seized the mint and held it until March 31 when control shifted to the Confederate States of America. Over the next two months, $1,356,136 was coined in half dollars, and ten dollar gold eagle coins using coin dies left behind from the United States Mint. Mint artists used the 1861 Liberty Seated half dollar obverse and created the new Confederate States of America reverse to strike several pattern coins.
According to records, only four original Confederate half dollars were struck. One of the coins was delivered to Confederate President Jefferson Davis for his approval. Three others were given to various Confederate dignitaries. In 1879, J. W. Scott and Company of New York acquired 500 1861 half dollars and re-struck them with the Confederate half dollar reverse. These are known as restrikes and can be identified by their flattened obverse.
On January 27, 1862, The Confederate Congress passed a law to establish an assay office at the mint facility. However, this did not last very long. On May 1, 1862, Union forces repatriated New Orleans and the Secretary of the Treasury Salmon P. Chase ordered Superintendent M. F. Alonso to take possession of the mint facility and all of its contents.
The Reconstruction Period
By the end of 1862, the New Orleans Mint was essentially an unoccupied building. During an inspection and review in 1865, 32 pairs of dies left over from earlier operations were destroyed. Three milling machines and five coining presses which were capable of minting the smallest of coins, the three-cent piece, through the largest coins, silver dollars, and gold twenty-dollar double eagles, were still in the building.
By 1867, repairs continued to accumulate. Many carpetbaggers from the north descended upon New Orleans during the reconstruction period and took up residence at the mint building. In 1874, federal troops descended upon New Orleans to quell a revolt against the carpetbaggers by local residents.
In 1878, the Treasury Department faced with an increasing demand on coinage investigated the possibility of reopening the New Orleans Mint. In July 1878, yellow fever broke out and eventually claimed 4,500 lives in New Orleans. This epidemic delayed the reopening of the New Orleans Mint facility.
Coinage Returns: 1879 to 1904
In February 1879, coinage operations resumed at the New Orleans Mint. The first coins since 1861 began rolling off the coining presses. Eventually, 2,887,000 Morgan silver dollars were made, 1,500 ten-dollar gold coins, and 2,325 twenty-dollar gold coins.
As the twentieth century approached, shipment by rail became an increasingly more efficient mode of transportation. Mintages of silver and gold coinage increased because shipments of gold and silver from the West Coast arrived more frequently. In 1902, the Treasury Department began discussing the future of the New Orleans Mint facility. Demand for gold coinage began to drop and was largely handled by the Philadelphia and San Francisco mint facilities. Layoffs began in 1904 and by 1909 the New Orleans Mint facility was permanently shuttered.
The New Orleans Mint Today
In later years, the building was used by various government institutions. This included assaying services to determine the pureness of gold and silver. Today the mint is owned by the Louisiana State Museum and operates various exhibits for visitors.
Coins Minted in New Orleans
In all, 12 different types of coins were minted at the New Orleans Mint facility:
- Three Cent Pieces 1851
- Half Dimes 1838-1860
- Dimes 1838-1860
- Quarter Dollars 1840-1860
- Half Dollars 1838-1909
- Silver Dollars 1846-1904
- Goal Dollars 1849-1855
- $2.50 Gold Quarter Eagles 1840-1857
- Three Dollar Gold Coins 1854
- Five Dollars Gold Half Eagles 1840-1909
- Ten Dollars Gold Eagles 1841-1906
- Twenty Dollar Gold Double Eagles 1850-1879
Fun Facts and Trivia
- The first three branch mint facilities created by the United States in New Orleans, Charlotte, and Dahlonega were all taken and possessed by the Confederate States of America.
- Carpetbaggers were transient people from the north that descended into the southern states during the reconstruction period after the Civil War. They were known by their cheap luggage made from a carpet-like material.
- The rarest coin ever minted at New Orleans was the 1853-O half dollar with no motto above the eagle on the reverse and no arrows next to the date on the obverse. Only four coins are known to exist.
- The most common coin made in New Orleans was the 1901-O Morgan dollar with 13,200,000 coins made.