The New Orleans Mint after Katrina

The famous New Orleans Mint building managed to survive Hurricane Katrina, but not without incident. The Louisiana State Museum, which now operates the facility, had a big challenge overseeing repairs and getting its doors open to the public once again.

This page documents the activities of the New Orleans Mint today, in the post-Katrina age, describing the earliest days following the disaster, preservation of the artifacts, damage assessment, the rebuilding effort, and plans for expanded exhibits dedicated to the history of Louisiana and its numismatic legacy.

For coin collectors who share an interest in history, we have an entire section devoted to the storied past of the New Orleans Mint. Beginning with its creation in the 1830's, the story of one of America's most unique institutions is recounted in easy narrative form.

August 29, 2005: Katrina Smashes the Gulf Coast
The eye of Hurricane Katrina making landfall, August 29, 2005, packing winds of 125 mph. Katrina claimed more than 1400 lives, and caused at least $75 billion in damage. Image courtesy of NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center, data from NOAA GOES.

Nearly everyone remembers August 29, 2005, the day Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. In its passing, Katrina inflicted catastrophic destruction, flooding, and death. For many days, news headlines documented the storm's fury and the human misery it caused.

Katrina killed more than 1400 people, becoming the deadliest natural disaster to hit the United States since the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. Overall, Katrina wreaked incredible havoc over a wide area, causing at least $75 billion in property damages, the costliest U.S. hurricane ever.
Levees protecting the city of New Orleans from the waters of Lake Ponchartrain were breached by the surge, ultimately flooding about 80% of the city. Heavy damage to the surrounding infrastructure hampered efforts to provide relief to many thousands of residents trapped inside the city.

As the Katrina drama seared the conscience of a concerned nation, a number of subplots unfolded with scant attention. The historic New Orleans Mint, a fixture in the French Quarter skyline since the 1830's, quietly became the scene of a race against time -- a challenge to preserve rare coins and other irreplaceable museum artifacts against the elements of nature, as well as from the dark side of human behavior. For an uneasy period of time, the eventual victor in this contest was anything but assured.

Rescuing Artifacts from the Mint Building
Katrina Flooding Superdome
Aerial view from a U.S. Navy helicopter, showing the rising flood waters threatening the entire downtown New Orleans city center, including the Superdome. Image courtesy US Navy.

As Katrina churned in the Gulf of Mexico, the Louisiana State Museum staff moved artifacts to the second floor of the New Orleans Mint building, as is their policy at all historic sites when a hurricane approaches. The doors were locked and all evacuated.

The storm struck on Monday morning, August 29, but it wasn't until Wednesday that the staff reached the Mint, guarded by a museum police escort. Much to their relief, no one had attempted to break into the unattended building, leaving intact the valuable artifacts inside, which included rare coins of the New Orleans Mint and Louis Armstrong's coronet.

The most obvious harm inflicted upon the building by the hurricane was to the copper roof; a sizeable portion of cladding, installed during renovations in 1978, was destroyed by the storm's powerful winds. Water poured in, causing damage to the auditorium and hallways below, but generally did not reach areas in the building where museum artifacts were exhibited or stored.

Damage to New Orleans Mint roof after Katrina
Structural damage to the New Orleans Mint building was largely restricted to a sizeable portion of the copper roof. Image courtesy of Louisiana State Museum.

The one exception is that a holding area for a small percentage of the jazz collection was affected. A number of books, scrapbooks, photographs, LPs, and files were exposed to moisture. Moving quickly, these items were stabilized before further damage occurred from mold and other resulting problems, and transported to Baton Rouge where additional conservation techniques were applied.

The situation could have been much worse; all damage, both structurally and to the contents inside, is restorable. The museum staff deserves credit for quick and proper action, but mostly we have Lady Luck to thank for the continued existence of the old Mint building and the treasures it sheltered.

Mint Building Damage: Repairs Now Completed
Damage Repair to New Orleans Mint roof after Katrina
Roof at old New Orleans Mint building undergoing repairs. The roof job was completed in 2006, but the overall restoration of the the stately facility required more than two years to implement. Image courtesy of Louisiana State Museum.

Major repairs to the copper roof were necessary and are now completed. It took more than two years to finish all the renovations, which in addition to the roof, included water damage restoration and a new heating and air conditioning system. Areas of the building that were in need of attention prior to the hurricane were also be addressed during the restoration process.

Fortunately, for the most part, the historic structure remained intact and a full recovery has taken place. The building reopen ed to the public in October,  2007.

The early phases of the repair operation necessitated the temporary removal of all collections to an offsite storage location. Now that the remediation of the water-damaged interior is virtually complete, all museum pieces have returned, to join newly donated and loaned items. The result will be an expanded version of the New Orleans Mint history exhibit. Some truly exciting programs are in the works, and these are discussed in the section directly below.

An Aggressive Strategy for a Great Museum
New Orleans Mint Museum Display
Pictured here is a sampling of the pre-Katrina coining museum at the old New Orleans Mint. A coin press from long ago is seen at end of hallway. When the building re-opens, this and other collections will be expanded and improved. Image courtesy of Louisiana State Museum.

A number of impressive coinage exhibits are scheduled for public viewing, which began October 19, 2007. The Gold and Silver Coinage of the New Orleans Mint display includes coins produced at the facility since its opening in 1838, through the year 1909, when minting operations were discontinued.

Included in the exhibit are relics associated with Mint coiners, placed next to documents relating to the daily operations of the coining department.

A small coin press thought to have been sold by the Mint and later owned by the Mardi Gras doubloon maker Alvin Sharp is on display.

The amazing "Eureka Bar" is also available for viewing. This is the heaviest known gold bar from the days of the California Gold Rush. It is made of .903 fine gold, weighing 933.94 ounces (about 80 lbs). It was valued at $17,433.57 at the time of its creation. The Eureka Bar was lost in the 1857 shipwreck of the S.S. Central America, about 160 miles off the coast of Charleston, SC. The lost ship was discovered in 1987. A collector subsequently paid $8 million for the Eureka Bar.

That is not all. There is a section devoted to counterfeit coins. An 1857 counterfeiting device once used to produce phony half dollars is the centerpiece of the forgery section. Also, Dr. John McCloskey, editor of the Gobrecht Journal, has provided a complete index of coins struck by the New Orleans Mint.

In addition, the Louisiana State Museum negotiated with the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta regarding a loan of 75 gold and silver coins from their large collection. Rick Demers, a coin collector from the New Orleans area, has loaned the museum his complete date collection of New Orleans Mint silver coinage. Aside from that, the marquee coin attraction is an 1861-O proof half dollar, the only currently traceable specimen of its kind. More on this later.

SS Republic
The SS Republic, from an 1860 painting (the ship was then named the SS Tennessee). The 264--ft steamer was in route from New York to New Orleans with a rich cargo intended to aid in the reconstruction of the South. The ship never reached New Orleans, sinking off the coast of Georgia during a hurricane. Now, more than 140 years later, some of the coinage that went down with the ship may finally reach its destination. Public domain image.

The Louisiana State Museum is hoping to secure, through donations, a number of gold coins and other artifacts recovered from the S.S. Republic wreck site. The S.S. Republic was a paddlewheel steamship which sank during a hurricane off the coast of Georgia in October, 1865.

The ship was en route to New Orleans from New York with a payload of coins valued at $400,000 face value, intended to aid reconstruction of the South following the Civil War. The wreck was discovered in August, 2003, and the coins brought to the surface are worth well in excess of 100 million dollars. Many of the long-lost coins are in remarkably good condition, and a few of them may just end up in New Orleans after all, more than 140 years behind schedule.

In addition to all this the old Mint will be hosting a major traveling exhibit on gold from the American Museum of Natural History. The exhibit features the properties and origins of gold and "its role as a driver of human settlement and a symbol of status", the AMNH reports.

Strategies for expanding the non-numismatic aspects of the museum are being developed, too. Look for new additions to the Louisiana music holdings.

The 1861-O Proof Half Dollar: Look History in the Face
1861-O Civil War Half Dollar
Close up view of the only known 1861-O proof half dollar. Three to five other specimens are believed to exist, but their whereabouts are uncertain. This rare specimen is on loan at the New Orleans Mint through the year 2011. Image courtesy of Louisiana State Museum.

A tiny number, perhaps four to six, of 1861-O half dollars are characterized by exceptional strikes and proof-like luster, so much so that these pieces have been deemed as proofs.

There are no official records documenting the production of proof specimens at New Orleans in 1861, so no one can verify if these examples were purposefully manufactured as proofs, and if so, by whose authority they were struck.

Some historians allow for the possibility that it was indeed the southern rebels who were responsible for the existence of the 1861-O proof half dollars. On February 28, 1861, a takeover ceremony was held at the New Orleans Mint, when the employees there swore a loyalty oath to the Confederacy.

One theory holds that at this ceremony, the proof half dollars were presented as a symbolic show of defiance against the U.S. government, and a smack in the face of Abraham Lincoln, who was to become president in four days.

Lending credibility to this view is the fact that the rebels later demonstrated their capability and desire to strike proof coinage by producing four proof half dollars of the Confederate design in May 1861.

Of the exceedingly rare 1861-O proofs, numismatists know of the whereabouts of only one example, and it is on display at the exact location where it was made, the New Orleans Mint. The coin once belonged to the famous collection of the DuPont family, but it is now owned by Robert LeNeve of Boynton Beach, Florida, who has loaned it to the Louisiana State Museum for all to marvel at. The half dollar was graded by ANACS as a Proof-60 grade, having deep reflective mirror surfaces on both obverse and reverse sides, accentuated by attractive blue and gold toning.

The LeNeve half dollar remained in the Mint building at the time everyone evacuated in advance of Katrina, as were all displays. Thankfully, no harm came to this Civil War relic.

1 Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Hurricane Katrina
2 Lambousy, Greg, Director of Collections.
Louisiana State Museum.
3 LeNeve, Robert.
Boynton Beach, FL.

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