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The Story of the Two Greatest Gold Shipments In The History of the United States Mints

by Dr. Thomas F. Fitzgerald from the California Numismatist

Twice within a span of almost twenty-five years, all of the gold from the vaults of the 2nd San Francisco Mint, sometimes called the “Granite Lady,” was sent to the United States Mint in Denver, Colorado. Yet the story of these two operations could not have been more different. The first transfer was accomplished with so much secrecy that even the newspapers knew nothing of what was going on. But the second transfer was so well publicized that it included parades and search-lights calling attention to the shipments. This is the story of these two great shipments of gold.

The Very Secret Gold Transfer of 1908

In May 1897 newspaper editor and publisher Frank A. Leach accepted a political appointment by President McKinley to become the superintendent of the San Francisco Mint. He had wanted to divest himself of the newspaper business and this seemed like an ideal new career. Leach assumed his duties on August 1, 1897.

The Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fires

It was a typical dawn in the Bay Area. Without warning a shaking of the earth occurred. It was 5:12 a.m. Wednesday, April 18, 1906! The “Great San Francisco Earthquake,” as it became known, was followed within seconds by a violent shaking that ruptured numerous gas lines resulting in dozens of fires. At the same time it was discovered the city’s water mains had been damaged. San Francisco, surrounded on three sides by water, could not battle the flames with water.

Just two years after the famous 1906 earthquake left the San Francisco mint’s surroundings in shambles, concerns about the mint’s storage capacity and security prompted the move of 331 million dollars worth of bullion to the mint in Denver.

Frank Leach made his way from his home in Oakland to the mint and, together with 50 mint employees and a squad of 10 soldiers, prepared to fight the inferno and save the mint. However, at the beginning of the struggle, the outcome was very much in doubt. The battle lasted for hours but shortly before 5:00 p.m. the fires were out and the building was saved. The men were able to leave the mint, return to their homes and reunite with their families.

More importantly for our story, the mint’s basement vaults that contained millions of dollars of gold and silver coins were saved.

The First Great Shipment of Gold to Denver

President Theodore Roosevelt had succeeded the assassinated President McKinley in 1900. Ten years later in 1908, the president named Frank Leach as “director of all the mints” requiring him to move to Washington DC. In the summer of 1908 it was decided to move all of the 270 million dollars in gold coin and another 61 million in silver coin from the Granite Lady to the Denver Mint because of the lack of storage space in San Francisco. Another factor was the location of San Francisco on the Pacific Ocean and thus, subject to an attack from some foreign power. Who could have predicted in 1908 what was to occur at Pearl Harbor in 1941, some 33 years later?

The First Great Transfer of Gold to the Denver Mint

There were several concerns regarding the transfer of the gold coins from the San Francisco Mint to the Denver Mint. There was a concern that this transfer of coins would not result in any loss because of a petty theft and of course, there was always the possibility of a robbery by a well organized gang of train robbers.

In order to accomplish this transfer without the loss of any coins, it was decided that everything had to be done with the utmost secrecy, even the appropriation of funds ($300,000) to pay the cost of these shipments had to be concealed. The plans were very successful as no newspaper article was ever published regarding this subject.

Early in 1908 Frank Leach traveled to San Francisco to make the arrangements for the transfer that would contain the largest amount of coinage ever moved! A contract was signed with Wells Fargo & Company, and the U.S. Marshal in San Francisco employed 30 guards. No one involved, from those who would transfer the coins to those mint employees who would inventory and pack the shipment in both San Francisco and Denver, could divulge any information.

The money in the vaults of the mint in San Francisco was stored in canvas bags that each contained $5,000 in gold coins. Eight of these bags were packed in strong pine-boxes that were bound with iron bands. The lids were screwed on and then sealed with the seal of the United States by a specially designated official.

The first shipment of gold coins to Denver took place on August 15, 1908. This was followed with two shipments of $5 million each per week. The coins were placed in horse-cars that were a part of the regular express trains in 1908. To any observer, the horse-cars could have been transferring thoroughbred horses. Each shipment was accompanied by 15 deputy United States Marshals dressed as ordinary citizens. The last shipment was on December 19, 1908. There was never any sign of trouble and not a word appeared in the newspapers of San Francisco or Denver. Not one dollar was lost!

The Second Great Transfer of Gold

In July of 1933, following the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the 32nd president of the United States, Peter J. Haggerty replaced Michael Kelly as Superintendent of the mint in San Francisco. In fact, he became responsible for two mints in that city because the new facility, located on Market and Buchanan streets, was now ready to replace the “Granite Lady.” He assumed responsibilities for both facilities. Hagerty served as superintendent of the San Francisco Mint until 1945.

The Second Great Transfer of Gold to the Denver Mint The 3rd San Francisco Mint was built to strike coinage and did not have space in well-protected vaults to store large numbers of coins. As plans were made to vacate the 2nd mint, the circumstances were similar to the conditions resulting in the very secretive transfer of gold coin in 1908. However this time, Haggerty made significant changes in his plans for the shipments of gold to the Denver Mint in 1933.

This transfer of gold, greatly surpassed the amount of gold transferred in 1908. It was called “The greatest movement of gold bullion in all history.” Unlike the secrecy of 1908, these shipments were accomplished with great fanfare including spotlights and a “parade of trucks loaded with gold bars.” The parade, to the Southern Pacific railroad depot, was repeated three times per week until all of the bullion had arrived safely at the Denver Mint. The San Francisco Police and the United States Army provided the security for these shipments.

After all of the counting was done at the mint in Denver, it was discovered there was a shortage of only one gold bar that was valued at $37,000. Eventually the missing bar was found under the seat of one of the delivery trucks. The driver testified that it had fallen under the seat without his knowledge. Now that all of the gold was accounted for, no charges were filed against him.

Of course all of these shipments to Denver preceded the eventual movement of gold to Fort Knox where it remains today.

According to the US Mint website, Fort Knox holds 147.3 million ounces of gold which is held as an asset of the United States at a book value of $42.22 per ounce. In 1941 the holdings peaked at 649.6 million ounces. The weight of a standard gold bar is 27.5 pounds.

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