Most New Orleanians are familiar with the Old Mint, that hulking Greek Revival building that sits at the foot of Esplanade Avenue at the river, but few know of its long and colorful history. Seen in this 1897 photograph, a worker at the New Orleans branch of the United States Mint counts and weighs thousands of newly minted “Morgan” silver dollars. But its on-and-off history of minting coins is only one role the Old Mint has played over the last 186 years.
Constructed in 1835 on the site of the Spanish colonial Fort San Carlos, the New Orleans mint was an important peg in President Andrew Jackson’s plan to develop the South and West and to breakup the East Coast’s hold on the American economy.
Designed by the Philadelphia architect William Strickland, the mint produced gold and silver coins from 1838 to 1861 (including Confederate coins) and again from 1879 to 1909. They are identifiable by the “O” for New Orleans imprinted on their reverse side. It also housed Confederate soldiers and later prisoners of war after the city fell to Union forces in 1862. In April of that year, New Orleans resident William Mumford climbed the mint’s flagpole and tore down the American flag to protest the Union occupation of the city. Two months later, federal troops hanged Mumford from the same flagpole.
After the Treasury Department shut down operations at the mint in 1909, the building served as a federal prison during the 1930s and 1940s and later as a storage facility for the U.S. Coast Guard. Following Hurricane Betsy in 1965, the federal government transferred the building to the State of Louisiana. The derelict landmark on the lower end of the French Quarter sat vacant until 1978 when the Louisiana State Museum began a three-year restoration of this National Historical Landmark with its high vaulted cast-iron ceilings and scored plaster façade. It now houses the museum’s New Orleans Jazz Museum and Louisiana Historical Center.