The History of the New Orleans Mint

Perhaps out of all the mintmarks on coins, there is one that would not necessarily be obvious to a collector starting out. ‘P’ is for Philadelphia, ‘D’ is for Denver, ‘W’ for West Point, ‘S’ for San Francisco, ‘CC’ for Carson City, and ‘O’ for New Orleans? Although a mintmark that is no longer in use today, the New Orleans Mint made quite the impact in the time that it was operational. Equally as impactful though is its story.

The Founding Of New Orleans

Near the mouth of the Mississippi River and located on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, New Orleans was founded in 1718 and became a great commercial area strategically. Gold made its way through the city ports from Mexico each year and it was also located near gold deposits in Alabama. In the early 1700s, New Orleans was the fifth largest city in the country and processed more foreign trade than any other city. Due to all these major points, the United States government decided that it would make a great location for a major branch of the United States Mint.

Official New Orleans Mint

In March of 1835, a branch of the United States Mint was officially named in New Orleans. At the time, there were also two other smaller Mints in the south: Charlotte and Dahlonega. Those two Mints only struck gold coins and the mother Mint (Philadelphia) was having trouble circulating coins quick enough to further places in the West. New Orleans, with the large influence of President Andrew Jackson at the time, quickly became an important branch of the Mint as they minted gold and silver coins.

The facility itself was designed by architect William Strickland and was located in the northeastern part of the French Quarter. The building itself started going through structural problems early on as the land it was built on was a swampy lowland area with a high water table. The building was reinforced later on with iron rods that were placed in between floors as well as some of the arches were rebuilt in the ceiling of the basement. The flooring itself was replaced in 1854 with masonry flooring and the machinery was converted to steam power which meant that smokestacks were needed to vent the fumes.

Recorded at the New Orleans Mint, the first minting operations began in March of 1838 and consisted of Mexican gold bullion. It is also recorded that the first coins ever minted at the branch were 30 dimes in early May. The Mint itself continued on to mint coins such as silver three-cent pieces, silver dollars, and gold dollars.

The New Orleans Mint and The American Civil War

While the New Orleans Mint had its share of structural issues, it also had the American Civil War to combat with. Since its beginning operations in 1838 to late January in 1861, the Mint operated under normal circumstances. That is until the day Louisiana seceded from the Union on January 26, 1861. Three days later, a Secession Convention gathered together in the city and it was concluded that federal employees could stay at the facility but they would be employees of Louisiana. It was not until March that the state finally accepted the Confederate States Constitution that allowed for the New Orleans Mint to continue its operation.

It was by the Confederates that the 1861-O Seated Liberty Half Dollars were struck at the New Orleans Mint in large numbers. It is, however, unclear as to how many of the 2.5 million that were struck were actually done by the Confederates or under the United States due to the time in which the secession took place. That same year though, the reverse die for the coins were eventually changed and the Confederates struck their own coins. Of these coins, only four are known to exist and one was once owned by the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

Bullion eventually ran out for the Confederates in early April of that year as employees of the Mint stayed until the end of May before the facility was used to house the troops. The Union Navy eventually captured and raised the United States flag at the building in the following April of 1862.

After the War

The Mint finally was able to get back to operations in 1876 as an assay office after the war and reconstruction period. Damages due to war were extensive and new equipment was needed to be fully repaired. Production continued on in 1879 when the Morgan Silver Dollar was just getting started. Silver dollars were minted at New Orleans from 1879-1904. In 1907, New Orleans was responsible for striking 5.5 million coins for the Mexican government in a program that was designed to produce foreign coins for other countries.

Downfall of the New Orleans Mint

As the 1900s began, there was a Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco Mint in full operation. In 1904, the United States government suspended the minting of silver dollars which in turn, caused a major issue for production at New Orleans. At this point, the facility in Louisiana mainly produced the silver dollar. By 1909, funding and operations at New Orleans were cut and the facility was officially shut down in 1911. The machines left were eventually transferred to Philadelphia.

The Old New Orleans Mint - Today

After being shut down, the facility was set to the status of assay office once again and by 1932, it was turned into a prison until 1943. From there, it was taken over by the United States Coast Guard as it was needed for storage before it was abandoned. Through many changing hands and ownership over the following years, the New Orleans Mint was donated to the Louisiana State Museum in 1966 by the government. It currently houses changing exhibitions, the New Orleans Jazz Museum, the Louisiana Historical Center, and a top-notch performance venue.

Source: USA Coinbook