The Second US Mint at San Francisco: Part Two
This is the second article in the series.
Frank Aleamon Leach was born in Auburn, New York on August 19, 1846. In 1852, when he was not quite five years old, the family arrived in San Francisco. As he became a teenager, Frank tried his hand by working in machine shops but found this work unsatisfactory. In 1863, at the age of 17, he learned about the publication of a newspaper that was about to be started. Frank was offered a job to assist the printer and thus began his newspaper career. Frank Leach always considered himself a “newspaper man” and published his life story under the title of: “Recollections of a Newspaper Man.”
It is important to this story to remember that in the days prior to the mass electronic media such as radios, televisions, internet-websites, portable telephones, etc., the newspaper provided the citizens with the reports of the political, business and other events of the day. As a result, the editors of these newspapers were very influential in shaping public opinion. They were as influential in elections and the shaping of governmental policies as any modern political action networks.
Frank Leach had been interested in political matters for a number of years. In fact, in 1880, he attended the Republican Convention in Chicago as an “alternate” delegate. He was appointed to the 1891 Assay Commission. In May 1897, following the inauguration of President McKinley, Frank Leach was notified he was the choice for the position of Superintendent of the United States Mint at San Francisco. He had wanted to divest himself of the newspaper business and this opportunity seemed to offer a new career. Leach assumed his duties on August 1, 1897.
Frank Leach served as head of the San Francisco Mint from 1897 through 1907 and again from 1912- 1913. Perhaps as a result of his work in serving both the mint and the city of San Francisco following the horrendous earthquake of 1906, he was appointed Director of the Mint and moved to Washington D.C. where he served from September 1907 to July 1, 1909. Frank Leach must be considered one of the most important leaders to have served as both a branch mint and as mint director.
The San Francisco Mint under Frank Leach produced the greatest volume of gold coinage in mint history. In addition, during this time the San Francisco Mint struck the Philippine coinage, introduced new and radical changes in the designs of the gold coins and adopted a new electrolytic method of refining the metals. His brief two-year service as Mint Director in Washington included the changes of the designs of our gold coinage, as a result of the efforts of President Theodore Roosevelt and Augustus Saint Gaudens. In addition, Frank Leach was instrumental in the historic design for the Lincoln cent, created by Victor D. Brenner, featuring the image of the assassinated President on the obverse in place of the Indian.
It was, however, the enormous San Francisco earthquake, that has become the legacy of Frank A. Leach!
The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906
It was a typical dawn in the Bay Area. All of a sudden a shaking of the earth occurred. It was 5:12 a.m. in San Francisco on Wednesday, April 18, 1906! Although only a foreshock, it had sufficent force to be felt through out the entire Bay Area. The “Great San Francisco Earthquake,” as it became known, followed within 20 to 25 seconds. The epicenter was just off the coast, near the city. The violent shaking, which seemed to last an eternity, actually continued for 45 to 60 seconds.
Although not immediately known, the violent shaking ruptured numerous gas lines that resulted in dozens of fi res that quickly merged into a single blazing inferno. But the damage wasn’t limited to the gas lines. Almost at the same time, it was discovered that the city’s water mains had also been damaged. San Francisco, surrounded on three sides by water, could not battle the flames with water.
In a letter dated April 23, 1906, E.H. Adams wrote: “The city is a mass of ruins from the Ferry Building or water front west to Van Ness Ave. and across town from north to south. Within the above radius no business house is left standing.” When the destruction of both human lives and property was totaled, the destruction of the earthquake and subsequent fi res was horrific. In 1906 the population of San Francisco was about 400,000. After extensive research in the late 1900s, it is estimated that 3,000 deaths resulted either directly or indirectly by the catastrophe. The property damage in the burned area of approximately 4.7 square miles was totaled as follows:
• 24,671 wooden buildings destroyed.
• 3,168 brick buildings destroyed.
The Fight To Save The Mint
Although Superintendent of the Mint Frank A. Leach had accomplished much since his appointment, nothing would compare to his coping with the events of April 18, 1906! Shortly after 5:00 a.m., the strong shaking at his home in Oakland suddenly awakened him. When he looked toward San Francisco, he was alarmed to see a huge cloud of black smoke above the city. He made his way to the city and to the mint.
When Frank Leach reached the facility, he found 50 mint employees doing their best to fight the fi re that swept through the streets and threatened the building. They were augmented by a squad of 10 soldiers under the command of Lt. Armstrong. These soldiers were put under the direction of Leach and, together with the mint’s men, must be given the credit of saving the Granite Lady. However, at the beginning of the struggle, the outcome was very much in doubt!
There were several reasons why the mint was saved. One of the most important factors, in addition to the heroic efforts of the men, was the existence of an artesian well within the courtyard of the facility. Although the earthquake had broken or badly damaged the pump connections, engineer Jack Brady made emergency repairs, Those fighting the fires now had two streams of water from their hoses. Fires create their own “wind” and by now the flames were leaping more than 200 feet against the north wall of the mint.
One of the mint’s workers, Joe Hammill, wrote to his brother the following description of the struggle to save the mint:
“The roaring was awful as the great buildings crashed and fell, while the bursting of large pieces from our own walls sounded like shells exploding against our mint. We stuck to the windows until they melted, playing a stream of water on the blazing woodwork. Then, as the flames leaped in and the smoke nearly choked us, we were ordered downstairs, for it was supposed that the mint was doomed.”
But the fire had eaten its way past the mint. The men were able, with the help of the hoses, to put out the fi res that had sprung up inside the building. During the worst part of the fire, burning embers from the surrounding buildings rained down upon the roof starting numerous fires. With the water from the hoses in place of buckets of water, the flames on the roof were put out.
Shortly before 5:00 p.m. the men were able to leave the mint building in order to inspect the damages done to their own homes and reunite with their families.
To Save a Lady – To Save a City
Although the fight to save the mint from the earthquake and subsequent fires was very dramatic and was hailed by all for the efforts of the brave men who struggled against the fire, one may make the argument that an equally important and magnificent achievement of the mint’s men was the fight to save the city.
Frank Leach called together the city’s bankers and formed an emergency committee or a “central bank” within the facility. The mint became the center of all financial affairs for San Francisco. Its halls and corridors were jammed with people during business hours. The mint’s vaults contained some 300 plus millions of dollars that had been preserved from the fire. These funds would be made available for the recovery efforts. By Saturday night, (the earthquake struck on Wednesday morning), the mint’s electricians had made the necessary repairs so that the interior and the streets around the building could be illuminated. This seemed to have an additional benefit as it raised the morale of those camped out in the areas around the facility. The mint superintendent notified Washington he intended to be open for business on Monday morning. On April 23 or 24, the U.S. Signal Corps had run a telegraph wire into the mint building. The facility now had a direct connection with the rest of the world.
President Theodore Roosevelt increased the duties and responsibilities of Superintendent Leach by naming him the custodian of all relief funds. In no small measure did the mint and its leader, Frank Leach, lead to the recovery of the city. The superintendent played a major and positive role in the efforts to save the city and direct its recovery from the earthquake and fi res.
Time and Technology Makes the Granite Lady Obsolete
Two years after the earthquake and fire, important changes were taking place. Superintendent Leach was now the director of all the mints in Washington D.C. The decision was made to transfer a large amount of gold from the Granite Lady to the Denver Mint, which had opened in 1906, the year of the earthquake. The San Francisco mint was never meant to be a storage facility for much of the nation’s gold. Consequently, the decision was made to ship approximately $270-million of gold coin to the Denver Mint.
A contract was negotiated with Wells-Fargo Co. to transfer the gold from San Francisco to Denver at a cost of approximately $300,000. The shipments began on August 15, 1908 and were completed by the end of the year. The gold was carried in horse-drawn wagons. The plans were kept a secret and not disclosed until the transfer had been successfully completed. This transfer with completed without the loss of a single coin. This was a great fete when compared to similar shipments made in the 21st century.
It is worth noting that in 1934, nearly one and a half billion dollars was shipped from San Francisco to Denver.
The Final Days as a Mint
A grand celebration was planned for San Francisco in 1915 to commemorate the opening of the Panama Canal. To be held in San Francisco, the “Panama Pacific International Exposition,” plans included a series of commemorative coins to be struck at the San Francisco Mint. The January 15, 1915 legislation was unique. For the first time in the nation’s history, the greatest array of commemorative coins was authorized. These coins were indeed noteworthy. This was the first and only time a $50 gold coin was to be a part of the commemorative coin set. The challenges for the mint were considerable. Not only was it necessary to create the designs for the new coins, it also required special tools and coin-press fittings. A medal stamping hydraulic press, weighing 14 tons and with a 450-ton striking power, was shipped from the Philadelphia Mint to the west coast.
The $50 gold coin was designed by Robert Aitken and was struck in both round and octagonal forms, the first time a shape other than round was authorized. The obverse bears the helmeted head if Minerva and the owl, the bird representing “wisdom,” is on the reverse. Eight dolphins, located at the angles of the design, may be seen on both sides of the octagonal variety. These coins were placed on sale at $100 each. Although over 1,500 pieces of each type were struck, only 483 circular and 646 octagonal types were sold. The 2007 edition of the Red Book lists these at $135,000 round and $120,000 octagonal in uncirculated condition.
There were two other denominations of gold coins for this set. The two and a half dollar gold coin was the work of Charles E. Barber (obverse) and George T. Morgan (reverse). Barber’s obverse depicts “Columbia” with a caduceus in her left hand seated on a hippocampus, repenting the use of the Panama Canal. Morgan’s reverse features a grand eagle with raised wings. The one- dollar Panama Pacific gold coin, designed by Charles Keck, bears the head of a man, representing the workers who dug the canal, on the obverse. There are two dolphins on each side of the denomination on the reverse.
Like the two and a half dollar gold coin, Charles E. Barber and George T. Morgan designed the Pan Pacific silver half-dollar. The obverse depicts a representation of Columbia with the Golden Gate in the background while Morgan’s reverse shows a frontal view of an eagle above a shield.
The Pittman Act of 1918
As World War I drew to a close in 1918, Congress was determined to change the way the country carried on its business. The Pittman Act was designed to conserve the country’s gold reserves, to settle the accounts of the United States with silver, to provide silver for the production of subsidiary coinage for commerce and to help our Allies recover from the war. This Act was meant to stabilize both the price and production of silver.
From May of 1918 through June 30, 1919, 270,232,722 Liberty Seated and Morgan dollars were melted with no inventory of dates or mints thus making all mintage figures dubious. A total of 39,001,000 were melted at the Granite Lady. In addition, another 35 million dollars, shipped from Washington D.C. and the New Orleans Mint, were also melted.
Amazingly, within two years, silver was again plentiful and the government, under mandates of the Pittman Act, was required to purchase silver. As a result, the mints at Denver, Philadelphia and San Francisco coined over 86 million Morgan dollars dated 1921. This continued with the introduction of the Peace Dollars that same year.
The Granite Lady Became Obsolete
By the 1920s it became apparent that the San Francisco Mint was inadequate. As reported earlier in this story, large amounts of gold had been shipped from the Granite Lady to the Denver Mint because of a lack of adequate storage facilities in the San Francisco vaults. The building, first opened in 1874, could no longer meet the needs of a modern mint. By 1932 the total production of the west coast mint was only 19,000,000 coins of all denominations. After examining the prospects of remodeling the Granite Lady was deemed impractical, it was decided to build a new and third mint in San Francisco. This new facility was constructed from 1935-1937 on Duboce Ave. at Buchanan and Market Sts.
Coin Production After the Earthquake and Fire
Twenty Dollar Gold Coins
The Coronet Design of James B. Longacre was utilized for the coins dated 1907. The mintage was almost 2.2 million coins. The designs of Augustus Saint-Gaudens began in 1908.
This denomination was last struck at the Granite Lady in 1930 and almost all of these coins were melted by the Government’s edict. As a result, the 2007 edition of the Red Book reports a mintage remaining after the melting of 74,000 coins and valued at $37,500 in MS60 condition.
Ten Dollar Gold Coins
Like the double eagle, the ten-dollar coin for 1907 was the Coronet de sign of Christian Gobrecht. Augustus Saint-Gauden’s design was introduced beginning with the 1908 issues from San Francisco and continued (with some years of interruption) through 1930. Similar to the 1930-S double eagle, the 1930-S eagle is quite rare with the 2007 Red Book reporting a remaining mintage of 96,000 and a value of $14.500 for an MS60 coin.
Five Dollar Gold Coins
There were no half eagles produced in San Francisco in 1907. Bela Lyon Pratt’s Indian Head design was introduced in 1908 and continued through 1916, the last year of this denomination from the Granite Lady. Other Coinage from the San Francisco Mint It should be noted that all of this coinage was interrupted by the economic conditions for some years in the 1920s and the depression of the early years of the 1930s.
Although huge quantities of silver dollars had been melted, the dollars again found their way into circulation. The fi rst coins to be struck were the Morgan design dollars and were dated 1921. Later that year, the Peace Dollar, designed by Anthony de Francisci, was introduced. The mintages of Peace dollars were interrupted several times and the series ended in 1934 when a large quantity of this date was struck at San Francisco.
Barber half-dollars were struck every year until the end of this series in 1915. Beginning in 1916, the Walking Liberty design of Adolph A. Weiman was introduced. Like the Peace Dollars, there were years when no half-dollars were produced in San Francisco.
The Barber design, like the half dollar, continued through 1915. Both the half-dollar and quarter-dollar coins for the year 1913 saw small mintages in San Francisco. In 1916 Herman A. MacNeil’s Standing Liberty quarter dollar design made its appearance and continued through 1930. As was the case with the other denominations, interruptions occurred in the 1920s.
Dime or Ten-Cent Coins
The Barber design dimes continued to be minted through 1916. In October 1916, the “Winged Liberty” or “Mercury” dime by Adolph A. Weiman was introduced. This design, that depicted “Freedom of Thought,” was created in light of the events in Europe that were drawing the United States into World War I. As reported above, there were interruptions of this variety in 1921 & 1922 and from 1932-34.
After the Denver Mint opened in 1906, both the San Francisco and Denver mints were given permission to strike nickels and one-cent pieces.
Nickels or Five-Cent Coins
With the authorization to strike this denomination, the Granite Lady produced nickels for the first time in 1912. These coins bore Barber’s Liberty-Head design. In 1913, the “Indian Head – Buffalo nickel variety was introduced. Like the other minor denominations, no nickels were minted dated 1922 and none for the years 1932-34.
The 1908 Indian-Head cent, designed by James B. Longacre, was produced at the mint in San Francisco in 1908 and 1909. All of the Indian- Head cents dated 1909, from this mint, were struck in January of that year. After a delay until June, the new Lincoln Cent of Victor D. Brenner began production from San Francisco. Lincoln cents were produced each year in San Francisco except for 1922 and again for the depression years, 1932-1934.
The End of the Granite Lady as a Mint
The second San Francisco Mint, the “Granite Lady” began to strike coins in 1874. It closed almost 65 years later when the production of coinage was moved to the 3rd San Francisco Mint. At its apex, it was the greatest and largest money factory in the world! Frequently, its production far exceeded that of any other U.S. mint. In addition, for a long period, the gold and silver coins stored in its vaults exceeded the combined total stored in Philadelphia and Denver. Of course, the role the facility played in the recovery of San Francisco from the 1906 earthquake and fi re may be its greatest legacy.
However, time brings about many changes. Not only did the nation’s population continue to grow creating a greater need for coinage, the economic and industrial base of the country grew on the east coast. The election of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, at the height of the depression, resulted in the elimination of gold as a currency. This led to the subsequent melting of the coins.
But the story does not end here. Part III of this series will tell the story of the transformation of the Granite Lady from a mint to a historical site.
To be continued…
Special Thanks goes to The California Numismatist for permission to Re-publish this series of exceptional articles.
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