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A chance to mint a bit of history
Nuggets of the Mint's past
Sunday, January 26, 2003
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle | Feedback
Hell came at 1 p.m. "The fire fiend," Frank Leach said. "An uncontrollable demon of blaze."
But the words came much later. As superintendent of the U.S. Mint, he had no time for infernal metaphor on Earthquake Day 1906.
"The buildings across the alley from the Mint were on fire, and soon great masses of flames shot against the side of our building as if directed against us by a huge blowpipe," Leach wrote in his 1917 memoir, "Recollections of a Newspaperman."
It's a story that deserves retelling. The deserted coinage factory, known for years as the Old Mint, is under consideration as a badly needed new home for the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society. On that April day, however, it was a fortress under siege.
"The glass in our windows, exposed to this great heat, did not crack and break, but melted down like butter." Leach wrote, "The sandstone and granite, of which the building was constructed, began to flake off with explosive noises like the firing of artillery."
As the Mint's gasping defenders fought hot spots and burning cinders, they could see geysers of fire shooting from nearby Lincoln School (today the site of the San Francisco Shopping Centre and its Nordstrom store.) Infernos marked the Cosmopolitan Hotel, the Emporium and every other building visible from the smoking roof at Fifth and Mission streets.
Conflagrations ignited by the 8.25-magnitude quake and fanned by rare easterly winds would eventually destroy 28,188 buildings in nearly five square miles of San Francisco. According to recently revised estimates, the disaster claimed about 5,000 lives - 10 times the official number concocted at the time by civic boosters and allowed to stand in most reference books. But nobody died at the Mint.
In 1994, the Old Mint was closed to the public after years of service as a maker of coins and an additional half century as a federal office building with a little museum of nuggets, ingots and dies for forgotten coins. Four years later, the last offices there closed.
Estimated costs of renovation are $45 million. This is a lot of money if the Old Mint's claim to fame rests on little more than architectural interest in its stolid Classic Greek Revival design and its status as a historic monument.
Instead, museum proponents need to put much greater emphasis on how the long-neglected Old Mint is particularly appropriate as a temple of history in a city largely built on the banks of a river of silver and gold.
More dramatically, it's also a fitting monument to the historic fortitude of 10 artillerymen of the 6th Infantry and the 50 assayers, pressmen, rollers, cutters and other Mint workers in what seemed like a hopeless battle 97 years ago with what Leach called the uncontrollable demon of blaze.
Back then, of course, it -wasn't the Old Mint. It was the New Mint. In 1874 it had replaced the Branch U.S. Mint, which had been authorized by Congress in 1852. It made little sense to ship ingots around the Horn to the official U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, which would ship them back six months later as coins. The plant opened in 1854 on Commercial Street in what is now Chinatown, minting $4 million in gold coins by year's end. That marked the end for about 20 private mints, each with its own coinage, that sprang up after 49ers returned with pokes of gold dust to the boomtown they called Frisco.
The post of chief assayer was granted in 1855 to a Hungarian adventurer, Agoston Haraszthy, who liked to be called Count Haraszthy. He -didn't count well, according to a grand jury that accused him of embezzlement in the disappearance of about $130,000 in gold. Haraszthy blamed the mint's faulty blowers - and was exonerated after workers prospected on nearby rooftops and found soot laden with thousands of dollars in gold dust. (The affluent Hungarian then bought land in the Napa Valley, introduced zinfandel grapes, became the father of California's wine industry, moved to Nicaragua and disappeared in 1869 in a river where, according to his biographers, he was dragged off by an alligator.)
The colorful count was no longer at the Mint by 1866, when Jessie Benton Fremont helped Francis Brett Harte get a patronage position as secretary of the Mint. The day job gave him time to edit Californian magazine and begin his literary career as the author Bret Harte.
The little plant on Commercial Street was soon overwhelmed - but not by gold. In 1859, a couple of prospectors from Washoe country trekked over the Sierra to Ott's Assay Office in Nevada City with samples of what they called "that damned blue stuff." It was interfering with their attempts to extract gold flakes from a nameless mountain in what is now Nevada. At a time when silver ore at $100 a ton was considered pretty good, the blue stuff assayed at $4,791 in silver and $1,595 in gold.
No longer nameless, Mount Davidson stood above deep-rock mines that in 21 years would produce $1 billion in coinage. Two cents would then buy a good loaf of bread.
Silver minted from the ledges and fissure veins of the Comstock Lode touched off a building boom in faraway San Francisco. Silver poured into San Francisco with huge impact, not all of it a boon. Rumors of scandal and scams swirled around the Mint.
"As production continued to soar in this dark, small mint, so did embezzlement," we are told by Richard G. Kelly and Nancy Oliver in "A Mighty Fortress: Stories Behind the Second San Francisco Mint."
"One lesser-known case involved the janitor of the building. He had been praised many times for his ability to rid the mint of rats. But one day he was found to be sewing $20 gold pieces into each dead rat before throwing them into the trash. After hours, he collected the rats and retrieved the coins inside."
Gambling with mine stocks enriched a few, impoverished many and, according to George Lyman in "Ralston's Ring," "The Insane Asylum at Stockton filled up with living witnesses to Washoe's wild excitement."
Silver helped finance the Union cause in the Civil War. Silver created multimillionaires of Jim Flood, George Hearst, Jim Fair, William Sharon, Bill Ralston, Adolph Sutro, Lucky Baldwin and a dozen others who rarely set foot in the honeycombs of drifts and tunnels beneath the treeless flank of Mount Davidson.
But silver -didn't help the prospector who gave his name to the big bonanza.
Henry Thomas Paige Comstock would sell out for a pittance, eventually go broke and finally commit suicide.
Nevada was left with 575 abandoned mining camps and ghost towns. In "The Silver Kings," the late author Oscar Lewis wrote, "Washoe residents complained that for 20 years the Californians had skimmed the cream off the Comstock and, having made their pile, shook the dust of the silver towns from their boots and hurried westward with never a backward glance. Thus, while the new plutocrats indulged their taste for display by ornamenting San Francisco with a series of massive hotels and office buildings and residences, the bonanza towns received no part of the wealth they produced."
Too many trainloads of silver and gold overpowered facilities at San Francisco's little mint. By 1870, a cornerstone was laid for a much bigger plant on one acre at Fifth and Mission streets. It was badly needed to handle the boom in precious metals from the Comstock, the deep quartz mines of the Sierra foothills and the hydraulickers who were washing down whole hillsides in California's all-time greatest environmental disaster.
Designed by Treasury Department architect Alfred B. Mullett, the Old Mint is described by historian Marcus Whiffen as "one of the last major monuments of the Greek Revival." The bill was $2 million for the three-story building of unreinforced masonry, its 3-foot lower walls faced with Rocklin California granite and its upper walls cladded with heavy blue-gray sandstone. Steel shutters discouraged burglars and bandits.
The Doric portico sits on six columns of the same special sandstone, which was shipped on schooners from the Nanaimo Collieries on Newcastle Island in British Columbia. Fourteen marble fireplaces warmed workrooms and offices lined by golden mahogany from Honduras.
The Chronicle remarked acidly that the Mint had been "finished and furnished, apparently regardless of cost."
The Coinage Act of 1873 removed "branch" from the official title of a mint that for many years, with an "S" stamped on every coin, was the most productive in the nation. It also became the Fort Knox of the West, storing a third of the nation's gold in its vaults.
As of 1875, the mint employed 63 women as "adjusters" and 104 men, a workforce that included a bitter Civil War veteran who would win fame as the 19th century's most acidulous cynic, Ambrose Bierce, author of the "Devil's Dictionary."
At the Mint, gold came from the smelter in ingots. Heavy rollers flattened them into oblong strips. Then came the cutting presses which, like cookie cutters, would chop blanks from the strips. When stamped by dies, blanks were transformed into double eagles and a dozen other coins.
In 1878, for example, the Mint issued 9.7 million Morgan silver dollars, 4. 2 million "trade" dollars, 5.3 million quarters, etc. etc. (The 1887 $5 gold piece, a "liberty coronet head design" stamped with "S," sells today to collectors for about $150.)
The Mint was only six years old when the Comstock Lode's big bonanza faded into borasca, but it continued until 1937 to strike millions of coins. The only interruption came, of course, in 1906.
Hours after the earth shook on April 18, Leach hopped off the Oakland ferry on his way to inspect damage at the Mint. Superintendent since 1897, the former legislator and ex-reporter hurried anxiously up the superheated gantlet of Market Street, stepping over piles of masonry and shuddering at a body wrapped in a quilt.
But the Mint was intact. So far.
In a letter to his brother, Mint worker Joe Hammill said, "Fanned by a whirlwind of their own making, the flames leaped 200 feet against the north wall of the mint."
The earthquake had damaged 300 water mains, leaving firefighters helplessly watching the town turn into a pyre. The Mint would have been gutted by fire, its great vaults of gold and silver transformed into giant ovens, but for an artesian well in the courtyard and hydrants installed just 10 days before on the roof.
By 5 p.m., it was over. The men walked across the hot cobblestones of Fifth Street into a scene Leach described as "utter ruin, desolation and loneliness. " The city's banks were rubble, their vaults too hot to be opened for several days. But the brave men of the Mint had saved $200 million in silver and gold from the same fate. Within two weeks, the Mint dispensed $40 million in desperately needed money.
Leach said that when he returned the next day, he was thrilled to see Old Glory floating from an improvised pole at the gable. The original staff had vanished in flame.
"The waving flag," he said, "confirmed our victory over the fire demon in the contest the day before, and proclaimed a haven of some comfort for all who could gather under its folds . . ."
Lynn Ludlow, a writer-editor who retired last year from The Chronicle, teaches journalism at Dominican University in San Rafael.
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