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Arts & Culture

NOLA History: The Old U.S. Mint, Site of Satchmo SummerFest!

The history of the Old U.S. Mint by the New Orleans French Market, site of the Satchmo SummerFest music and culture festival.

Many coins minted in the United States have a “mint mark” which indicates where the coin was made. Those coins with an “O” mint mark were made right here in New Orleans, at the Old U.S. Mint, located at Esplanade Avenue and the French Market. Even though the Old U.S. Mint hasn’t made coins since the turn of the 20th Century, it’s still a fascinating tourist attraction, and the home base for this weekend’s Satchmo SummerFest on August 3-5.

Old U.S. Mint New Orleans
Silver three cent coin, minted in the 1850s at the US Mint in New Orleans. (Image courtesy

A branch of the U.S. Mint was established in New Orleans in 1835. U.S. economic policies required cash for land transactions at the time, increasing the demand for minted coins. New Orleans’ status as a major port, combined with the amount of Mexican gold that came through the port, made the city a good place to build a mint. The government built the mint at Esplanade Avenue and the river, at the edge of the French Quarter. The site was once Fort St. Charles, an important part of the city’s defenses when the city was controlled by the Spanish. The Americans demolished the fort in 1821. The Greek Revival building was designed by William Strickland, a student of U.S. Capitol architect Benjamin Latrobe. Strickland also designed the headquarters U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. While Strickland produced a workable and attractive design for the New Orleans branch mint, he did not factor in the soft, swampy ground of the French Quarter. The building soon developed structural problems. In 1851 the government contracted with New Orleans native and West Point engineering graduate P.G.T. Beauregard to fireproof and reinforce the building. Beauregard did just that, also adding a smokestack to handle the steam-powered equipment then in use for minting coins. Beauregard went on to further fame as a Civil War general for the Confederacy and later as a civic leader in New Orleans.

Old U.S. Mint New Orleans 1905
U.S. Mint, viewed from the Mississippi River levee, c. 1905 (Courtesy NOPL)

The Confederates took control of New Orleans during the Civil War, minting almost one million half dollars in 1861. The CSA also adopted an alternate reverse for their version of the half dollar coin. It is unknown exactly how many of those alternate coins were minted, as only four remain today. Production was suspended in 1862 when the city was occupied by Union troops. The building and its grounds were still a focal point for both sides in the conflict, however. William Mumford, an avowed Confederate, ripped down the U.S. flag flying from the mint’s flagpole. Since that flag had been first raised by U.S. Marines upon the arrival of Admiral David Farragut in New Orleans, it was considered a potent symbol. Benjamin “Spoons” Butler, the commanding general and military governor, concluded that Mumford committed treason, and ordered him arrested and hanged. Butler used the courtyard of the mint for the hanging, which galvanized Confederate sentiment against him.

New Orleans City Railroad
“Bobtail” streetcar operated by the New Orleans City Railroad, passes by the U.S. Mint in the 1880s. (Photo courtesy of Library of Congress)

Production at the mint resumed in 1879, and the building continued in use until 1909. The building served as an assay office until 1932, when it became a federal prison during World War II. The building took on a number of functions until 1966, when the federal government proposed demolishing the building. The State of Louisiana stepped in and proposed to take over the building, if the feds would pay for renovations. The renovated mint building opened as a property of the Louisiana State Museum in 1981. In addition to exhibits displaying the mint’s history producing coins, the building houses the LSM’s “New Orleans Jazz Club Collections” and a performing arts center.

Be sure to check out the Old U.S. Mint, before, during, and after Satchmo Summerfest, which will be held Friday, Saturday and Sunday, August 3-5!

Old U.S. Mint New Orleans
The Old US Mint today. (Image courtesy Carlos “Froggy” May)
New Orleans satchmo summerfest
Stage at Satchmo SummerFest 2010 (Image courtesy Carlos “Froggy” May)

Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans.  His latest book, Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, is available at bookstores in the city and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.