When the US Constitution was ratified in 1789, the nation’s capital was Philadelphia, so it made sense that the first mint would be located there. But as the country expanded, it experienced an acute shortage of coins, and distribution to the rapidly growing southern and western areas became a problem.

In 1835, Congress approved establishing branch mints to address the issue. Two would be located in gold-producing areas of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and Georgia and were limited to making gold coins from the local ore. The third was to be located in New Orleans, the largest foreign trade port in the US and the nation’s fifth-largest city at the time.

A Grand, All-Purpose Mint

The New Orleans Mint building was designed in a red brick Greek Revival style by architect William Strickland, a student of Benjamin Latrobe, designer of the US Capitol building. It was situated on a site overlooking the Mississippi River that had been the location of a Spanish and French fort built as part of the city’s early defenses.

Unlike the other mint branches, New Orleans would produce both gold and silver coins in a variety of denominations to alleviate the coin shortage of the early 19th century and would establish itself as the most important US mint outside Philadelphia.

The Early Years

A shipment of Mexican gold bullion was deposited at the New Orleans Mint on March 8, 1838, and on May 7, the first coins were struck—30 silver dimes bearing the distinctive “O” mintmark. Over the next 23 years, US silver and gold coins of nearly every denomination were made in New Orleans, from 3-dent “trimes” to $20 gold Double Eagles. Production continued until January 1861, when Louisiana seceded from the US at the start of the Civil War. Control of the mint was taken first by the state of Louisiana and ultimately by the Confederacy. At the time of its seizure, the New Orleans Mint held about $500,000 in gold and silver coins. The last US coins struck were roughly 18,000 $20 Double Eagles, a handful of which still exist including an MS60 coin that sold for $312,000 at auction in January 2018.

The Civil War

The mint continued producing coins for the Confederacy briefly until bullion supplies ran out in late April. After that, it was used as quarters for Confederate troops until Union forces under command of Admiral Farragut recaptured the city in April of 1862. Shortly after the US flag was raised over the mint building, a riverboat gambler named William Mumford climbed the roof, tore it down, and ripped it to shreds. To discourage further acts of defiance against the victorious Union forces, the military governor of New Orleans had Mumford arrested and hanged from a horizontal flagpole on the building’s façade.

Second Wind

During the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, the New Orleans Mint remained closed, reopening as an assay office in 1876. The building was refurbished and when new machinery arrived in 1879, the mint resumed coin production, making primarily silver dollars to meet demand under the Bland-Allison Act which mandated large increases in silver coinage. It also struck dimes, quarters, and half dollars along with 5-, 10-, and 20-dollar gold coins, When the government authorized the Treasury to make coins for foreign countries, over 5½ million silver 20-centavo coins were struck in New Orleans for Mexico.

End of an Era

Coins struck in New Orleans developed a reputation for mediocre quality, perhaps due in part to the use of older machinery brought in to replace prewar equipment. By the early 20th century branch mints had been opened in San Francisco and Denver, and when silver dollar minting, the bulk of New Orleans’ production, was suspended in 1904, the facility became redundant. In 1909 the Treasury Department ceased funding the mint’s operation, and it was formally decommissioned in 1911. By the time of its closing, the New Orleans Mint had produced over 427 million gold and silver coins of nearly all denominations.

History Lives On

The New Orleans Mint building still stands at its original location, its porticoed entrance facing Esplanade Avenue in the French Quarter, and is considered one of the city’s finest old buildings. Since decommissioning, it has served a number of functions, including as an assay office, a federal prison, and a Coast Guard storage facility.

Efforts to save the deteriorating structure culminated in its rehabilitation and conversion to civic use as a branch of the Louisiana State Museum. It houses the New Orleans Jazz Museum, a coin museum, historic archives, and an exhibit facility that hosts numerous functions celebrating the history and culture of the Crescent City. It is also the site of concerts in partnership with the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. The oldest remaining structure to have served as a US Mint, it is listed as a National Historic Landmark.

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Great American Coin Company