The Mint That Never Was

By Rodger Nichols

An architect’s elevation drawing of The Dalles Mint as proposed, including a red cupola. Courtesy of the Dalles City Planning Department

Anyone who had cardboard coin collector boards for pennies, nickels, or dimes when they were a kid probably remembers three mints at the time: Philadelphia, Denver, and San Francisco.

Anyone who collected Morgan silver dollars also knew about former mints in Carson City, Nevada, and New Orleans.

High-end collectors of very old gold coins are likely aware of the earliest branch mints in Charlotte, North Carolina, and Dahlonega, Georgia.

But few people—even people who live in The Dalles—know about the mint that never was.

The Dalles mint was the only U.S. mint authorized and nearly completed but never minted a single coin.

Gold fever took over in the country with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in California in 1849. However, Congress did not get a West Coast mint up and running until 1854 when the San Francisco mint opened.

In 1860, gold was discovered in Idaho, which kicked off a new gold rush. Miners on their way to Idaho started checking out every stream they crossed on the way. In October 1861, they made a strike near Canyon City, Oregon.

Construction of the mint, circa 1870. Courtesy of the Dalles Chronicle

By this time, the Civil War had closed the three southern mints—Charlotte, Dahlonega, and New Orleans—leaving only the Philadelphia and San Francisco locations.

In June 1862 came a large strike near Canyon City at Whiskey Gulch. Nearly $26 million in gold came from that single canyon alone.

As miners began sending out gold, the easiest route was through The Dalles. From there, it went to Portland and was loaded on a steamer for the San Francisco mint to be made into coins or bars.

The 700-nautical-mile journey was long, dangerous, and expensive. That led to a call for a mint much closer to the goldfields. Several towns competed to build a new mint, including Boise and Portland.

At the time, The Dalles—the nerve center for the gold rush—had a population of 10,000, which was greater than Portland, Seattle, Spokane, and Boise combined. It was a busy, rip-roaring city, with saloons, gambling joints, and houses of ill repute.

On July 4, 1864, the 38th Congress agreed with the Oregon delegation that a mint should be built to turn the gold reaching The Dalles into coins and ingots. The act also appropriated $100,000 for the mint’s construction.

With a full act of Congress finally behind it, three outstanding circumstances stopped The Dalles Mint from going into production:

  • More than a year before The Dalles bill passed, Congress passed a bill authorizing a mint in Carson City, Nevada, the site of a huge Comstock Lode silver strike. The mint wouldn’t go into production until 1870, but it competed for resources and attention and got there first.
  • There was continued competition within the region. In 1865, a bill that proposed changing the mint site from The Dalles to Portland was introduced in Congress. With sectionalism and bureaucratic delays, there was no mint activity at all in The Dalles.
  • There was a tragedy with terrible timing. In 1865, President Abraham Lincoln appointed William Logan as superintendent of the U.S. branch mint at The Dalles, though work had not yet begun. That year, William, his wife, Izza, and their 15-year-old son Hugh left for San Francisco to find medical help for Izza. She responded well to treatment, and they decided to return home on July 28, 1865. On the way home, the ship was caught in a violent storm. Attempting to return to port, the ship struck a reef and sank. Only one lifeboat with 19 aboard makes it to shore. William and Izza were not among the survivors. Hugh, who had stayed behind in San Francisco, ultimately made his way home and became a celebrated doctor in The Dalles.

With the loss of the superintendent, planning ground to a halt. It was not until June 1868 that another construction superintendent was appointed.

The mint’s distinctive stonework is evident in most of the rear section of the building. Photo by Rodger Nichols

Finally, in February 1869, construction began on Second Street. Heavy blocks of sandstone and basalt were quarried near Mill Creek and from a ledge above Pioneer Cemetery. The first floor was completed in late 1869.

Had it been built as planned, the mint’s bright top would have been a colorful landmark visible for miles around—it was to be painted with “three coats of linseed oil and Venetian red.” The proposed dome would have been topped with a copper-covered weather vane.

Work stopped several times in 1870. The Treasury was rethinking its need for a mint in Oregon as gold production slowed and there were cost overruns.

Construction resumed in March 1871. The second story was halfway finished when a destructive fire consumed much of the area around the mint. Its solid stone walls held off the flames. The Treasury Department decided not to complete the building, even though construction was nearly finished.

In March 1875, Congress passed an act giving the building to the state of Oregon for educational or charitable use. In 1880, the state deeded it to the newly incorporated Wasco Independent Academy. The academy sold it in 1886 to private interests.

Throughout the years, various private concerns occupied the structure, and it also sat vacant for several years. The building has undergone several structural changes. Most of the rear section retains the distinctive stonework, which identifies it as the old mint that never was.

In the early 1980s, the building housed Ralph’s Transfer & Storage Co. It was then Erin Glenn Winery’s production room and cellars. Recently, it has been the home of Freebridge Brewing. The only gold ever minted there has been the liquid gold of its brews.