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A Complete History of the San Francisco Mint

A Complete History of the San Francisco Mint

December 18, 2023905 view(s)

The Golden Gate Bridge. Alcatraz. The Palace of Fine Arts. 

There are many sights to see in San Francisco, but a visit to the city isn't complete without a trip to the San Francisco Mint! Affectionally named The Granite Lady, the Mint officially opened in 1874. In the decades since, it's become known as a national treasure, filled with stories and history that awes coin collectors and casual visitors alike. 

Today, we're taking a closer look at this branch of the US Mint and sharing its fascinating backstory!

1848: When It All Began

In 1848, there was one thing on the mind of everyone in the United States: Gold. This is the year the valuable material was first discovered in California, setting off a nationwide frenzy that would last for years. The era became known as the California Gold Rush and didn't end until 1855. 

Prospectors from all over the country started looking at California as their dreamland and went west to get their piece of the pie. They came from all over, by any means necessary, whether that meant sailing on a boat, catching a train or stagecoach, or even walking on foot. The allure of a possible fortune was very real, and it drove them on. 

From the spring of 1848 to the end of 1849, the number of people living in Sacramento Valley grew from 800 to more than 100,000.  Due to the year of their migration, the influx of people became known as the 49ers. In all, they mined more than 750,000 pounds of gold from the state's infamous hills. 

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1854: A Local Mint Opens

When the Gold Rush first began, the gold had to travel all the way from California to the closest Mint at the time: the Philadelphia Mint. As you can imagine, this was a time-consuming and expensive process. It was also filled with safety issues, as the journey often took miners across dangerous terrain. 

As complaints grew, the U.S. Congress began to recognize the need for a new Mint that would be more accessible to California's growing population. After entertaining a few different locations, the Treasury Secretary finally chose San Francisco as the spot to build. 

On April 3, 1854, the San Francisco Mint officially opened its doors for the first time. In the first few years, it was primarily responsible for accepting and processing gold from the miners. In that first year alone, the Mint processed more than $4 million worth of gold coins!

1867 to 1874: New Building Authorized and Built

Even after the Gold Rush technically ended in 1855, the San Francisco Mint was still struggling to keep up with demand. The current building was filled to capacity, so leaders authorized the construction of a new facility to help with the overflow. 

While plans were still in the works, the 1868 earthquake occurred. Known as the Hayward Earthquake, it had a moment magnitude of 6.3 to 6.7 and a maximum Mercalli intensity of IX. In all, it claimed the lives of 30 people living in the Bay Area. 

Many buildings collapsed during the earthquake, and contractors at the San Francisco Mint wanted to make sure their new building would be able to withstand future seismic activity in the area. As such, they built it to be incredibly strong and durable.

Architect Alfred Mullet used heavy, sturdy materials, including sandstone and granite, to create the building. This is where it got the nickname The Granite Lady! It opened in November of 1874. Years later, in 1906, there was another earthquake in the same region, and the San Francisco Mint was one of only a handful of buildings left standing, proving the fortitude of the design. 

Not only was the building still standing, but the gold inside of it was also safe! This was a major relief, as the Mint held about one-third of the country's entire gold reserves at the time, with a total value estimated at around $300 million. 

Early 1900s: The Hub of the City

After the 1906 earthquake, the Mint became one of the most integral parts of the city. At the time, it was the only place people could go to conduct banking and other types of financial activities, including emergency disaster relief. 

Still, this doesn't mean the facilities made it through the event unscathed. The earthquake (and the fire that followed) caused major disruptions to the gas operations, which hindered the Mint's ability to coin. As soon as the gas works were back up and running, coin production followed. 

1937: A Third Building Opens

While the second building had an impressive history, it ultimately closed in 1937. From then on, it became known as the Old San Francisco Mint. That same year, leaders commissioned the creation of a third building on the Mint's property. That building is still in use to this day!

1955 to 1968: Production Ceases (and Then Ramps Up)

Despite state-of-the-art facilities and steady demand, the San Francisco Mint couldn't keep up with the innovative upgrades and market changes. Production increasingly slowed, especially as developments ramped up at other U.S. Mint locations around the country, most notably in Philadelphia, PA and Denver, CO. The minting process that workers were following was ultimately considered obsolete, replaced by newer and sleeker modes of operation that the buildings weren't equipped to support. 

As a result, the San Francisco Mint closed its doors for 10 years. During that time, in 1962, the U.S. Congress gave it a new name and it became known as the San Francisco Assay Office. While it might have felt like a step back, change was just around the corner. 

In 1965, a piece of legislation known as The Coinage Act opened new doors for the Mint. All of a sudden, the facility could begin making pennies, along with other Mints across the country. By 1968, the facility was producing every proof coin, a task that formerly fell to the Philadelphia Mint. 

1985: Silver American Eagles

For 20 years, the San Francisco Assay Office kept busy, progressing with the times and staying in high demand. Then, on July 9, 1985, Congress passed the Liberty Coin Act. This legislation, which went into effect on October 1, 1985, authorized Mints to produce special coins called Silver American Eagles.  

This was exciting news, as it expanded the Mint's capacity and potential. Just over a year later, on November 24, 1986, the facility produced the country's first coin of its kind. The results were so successful that the U.S. Mint designated the San Francisco location as the only place to produce Silver American Eagle coins from 1986 to 1992. 

1988: Regaining Mint Status

The name change didn't seem to affect the Mint too much, but monikers matter. In 1988, it regained its status as a Mint, most likely due to the exclusive production of the Silver American Eagles coins.

While this was a solid run, production eventually moved to Philadelphia in 1993, where it stayed until 2000, when it moved to West Point, NY. Even now, Silver American Eagle coins are still produced in West Point. When this designated left the San Francisco Mint, the building ceased to be used for much else. 

Since 1992, the U.S. Mint has only used the San Francisco Mint to produce a small number of unique, collectible coins. This is why it's so special to find a coin that has this Mint's mark on it! If you have a coin with the "S" mint mark, then you could have a valuable piece of history on your hands!

Today: Robotics Loop and Plans for the Future

While the San Francisco Mint might not be as active as it once was, there are plans in place that are designed to change its course. The city's Office of Economic and Workforce Development (OEWD) is currently spearheading the San Francisco Mint Restoration Project to fully renovate the Mint!

This project, which is performed in partnership with the California Historical Society (CHS) is set to turn the Mint into a celebrated cultural destination. Already, the space has shown signs of major growth. One of those is the recently installed Robotics Loop, added to the first floor of the Mint in 2016. 

Here, a long line of yellow robots move over a conveyor belt. The robots help assemble packaging and coins for various kinds of proof sets, improving their overall quality and production rate. While the former line could produce coins at a rate of approximately 600 sets per hour, this new loop triples the output at 1,800 sets per hour!

A Complete History of the San Francisco Mint

Explore Our Collections From the San Francisco Mint

The history of the San Francisco Mint is storied and rich. It shows the resiliency of the city, especially as public interest in precious metals ebbed and flowed. From the initial craze of the California Gold Rush to the development of two other buildings on the grounds, this facility has seen many changes. 

Through it all, the Mint has continued to produce high-quality coins and proof sets for avid collectors. If you're looking for those coveted "S" mark coins that trace back to this Mint, you've come to the right place. We have several options for you to choose from, including Silver Eagles from 1986 to 1992 in Perfect Proof 70 condition.

Feel free to explore all of our collections and contact us to learn more!

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