Finn J.D. John

Offbeat Oregon History

When hardcore coin collectors examine a promising piece of numismatic history, the first place their eyes usually go is to the bottom right side of the front, looking for a tiny letter known as a “mint mark.”

Usually the mint mark is a P or a D — representing the main mint at Philadelphia or the branch mint at Denver, respectively. Less commonly, you’ll see an S, representing the branch mint at San Francisco, or a W, representing the mint’s newest facility at West Point, N.Y.

Mint marks of “O” (New Orleans), “C” (Charlotte, N.C.), or “CC” (Carson City, Nev.) are very rare, and in most cases add a lot of value to the coins they’re stamped on. (1880s Morgan Silver Dollar coins mint-marked “P” are averaging about $50 in eBay right now, an “S” mint mark doubles that to about $100 and a “CC” doubles it again, to about $200.)

That list of rare mint marks came close to including another, which probably would have been “DC” — for Dalles City, as the The Dalles was once called. In fact, it probably would have, had it not been for some resistance from jealous business leaders in Portland and a badly timed shipwreck.

The plan for a branch mint in Oregon was hatched in 1862, and for the same reason that one had been built in San Francisco eight years before. There was a full-on gold rush going on, and the area was flooded with raw gold nuggets and dust — hauling raw gold thousands of miles to a far-distant mint before it was assayed and properly measured was both expensive and risky.

San Francisco, of course, had been the main city center of the great California (and southern Oregon) Gold Rush of 1848, and after the branch mint was built there in 1854 it stayed busy striking coins from California gold and Nevada silver for most of the rest of the 1800s.

The Dalles was the main city center of the smaller gold rush that had broken out in 1861 in Griffin Gulch, near Baker City. More gold was found the following year in Whiskey Gulch near Canyon City, and by the end of that year, Eastern Oregon was flooded with prospectors digging out tons of raw gold.

The Dalles, rather than Portland, became the center of all this activity, because there was a mountain range between Portland and the gold fields — the best and safest way to get there, in those pre-railroad days, was to go to The Dalles and get on a riverboat. Riverboat passage was expensive and there really wasn’t anything in Portland that The Dalles didn’t have, albeit at ridiculously inflated prices.

So The Dalles became the San Francisco of the new gold rush, and Portland became a downstream port that supplied it — and helped get the raw gold from The Dalles to the federal mint in San Francisco to be refined and stamped into coins.

This wasn’t as cumbrous a process as the one that had inspired the San Francisco branch — hauling raw gold over 10,000 miles around the horn of South America and back to Philadelphia — but it was plenty cumbrous for all that. The raw gold would be shipped down the river on a riverboat, portaged around the rapids at Cascade Locks, loaded on a coastwise sailing ship or steamer in Portland or Astoria, and sent down the West Coast to the branch mint at San Francisco — a risky, expensive journey of more than 900 miles.

In December of 1862, Sen. James Nesmith introduced a bill to build a Portland branch mint to handle it.

This was early in the Civil War, though, and legislators had yet to feel the full financial pinch that an Oregon mint branch would help them solve — they’d be scrambling to find hard currency to finance the war effort within a few years, but that hadn’t happened yet. Plus, putting a mint in Portland only solved half of the problem; the gold would still have to be brought down the Columbia. Congress passed, and time went on.

A year and a half later, though, wartime financial circumstances inspired Congress to abruptly bring it back up and pass it — but the location, quite sensibly, was changed to The Dalles.

Oregon politicians — few of whom represented The Dalles, but many of whom represented Portland — did not take this well. The next year, 1865, they introduced a bill that would change the location back to Portland. It was defeated, but all of the wrangling took time and the mint couldn’t start on its facility until it knew where to build it. So, nothing happened before the end of the Civil War. And with the end of the war, the federal government lost its sense of urgency.

The project got under way nonetheless, and William Logan was appointed superintendent of the new mint. All appeared to be on track; but then Logan and his wife died in the wreck of the steamer Brother Jonathan on their way home from San Francisco.

Three years went by without a new superintendent being named. Then, finally, construction started on the building.

That construction was well on track to being done when, in summer of 1870, the crews got the word to stop. The project was being abandoned.

What had happened?

First of all, the West Coast states’ transportation infrastructure had changed radically since 1862; suitable stagecoach routes had been developed, and everyone could see that there would soon be railroad lines everywhere. Also, since the branch mint at Carson City was now open, the overland run had gotten a lot shorter and less arduous. So it was no longer necessary to load the gold on and off of three different boats and ships and sail across the Columbia River Bar on a 900-mile journey through storms and fog to get to the mint.

Secondly, by the end of the 1860s it was clear that the Eastern Oregon gold rush was petering out. It might be re-energized, everyone knew, if another big strike opened up a new set of gold fields somewhere else in the area, but it had been seven years since the Whiskey Gulch strike near Canyon City, and since then, basically nothing. The party appeared to be winding down, and the federal government was not keen to have a big facility in the middle of nowhere servicing a tiny and dwindling trickle of local gold — which they were increasingly convinced would be the situation by about 1875.

The half-built mint building in The Dalles remained, of course, and it was built like a city-block-sized bank vault with windows. It had thick walls made out of cut stone blocks with storage vaults beneath capable of shrugging off both dynamite attacks from above and tunneling efforts from below by any would-be burglars. Its heavy construction enabled it to function as a one-building fire line when the town caught fire in 1871 — the flames leaped from building to building, gobbling up about six dozen homes and buildings before slamming into the fireproof stone walls of the mint building. The break slowed the fire down enough for the fire department to get a handle on it, saving the other half of the town from a similar fate.

A later fire damaged the inside of the building heavily in 1943, but stone doesn’t burn, and it was repaired.

Today, the old mint building houses Freebridge Brewing. Its catacomb-like vaults, full of archways built with bricks, lend themselves very nicely to the atmosphere of a brewery and wine shop.

(Sources: Zimmerman, Brent. “Mint that Never Was Makes Interesting Tale,” Numismatic News, 23 Jul 2009; freebridgebrewing.com)

— Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn2@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

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