Grace Under Fire

As San Francisco burned, 100 years ago this month, a hardy band of men worked feverishly to save the city’s mint—and with it, the U.S. economy

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Leach, too, feared the worst. Then, "to our surprise," the smoke cleared. The men, "with a cheer," he wrote, "went dashing into the fight again."

The smoke in the building's interior waxed and waned, depending on the wind and on the material burning in nearby buildings. The men lost track of time, dousing water on the flames every time the strangling smoke let up. Then, by midafternoon, Leach realized that "the explosions of the stones in our walls grew fainter, and finally we heard no more of them." That could mean only one thing. The conflagration had passed by the mint at last on its march westward through the city.

But the roof was still on fire. The men, Hammill wrote, "climbed out onto the roof and played the hose on the red-hot copper surface....We worked for an hour, ripping up sheet copper and...using the hose where [it] would do the most good."

As Hammill and his comrades worked on the roof, Leach toured the building—finding, to his great relief, no serious damage. "The fight was won," he later wrote. "The Mint was saved."

Around 5 p.m., Frank Leach stepped outside for the first time in hours. The view "was one of utter ruin, desolation, and loneliness." Neighboring buildings "were piles of smoking ruins. Not a human being was to be seen. It seemed as if all the people and buildings of the city but the Mint and its defenders had been destroyed."

No Barbary Coast gangs had attacked the mint (although that didn’t stop the Oakland Tribune from reporting erroneously, in a postquake edition, that 14 people had been shot trying to rob it). When martial law ended, the Granite Lady became a centerpiece of San Francisco's rebirth. Residents returning to the charred ruins of their homes found that the mint had the only potable water in the area. Leach installed pipelines from the mint's well to distribute water to residents until the mains could be repaired. Because of the people lined up for water, the neighborhood's first businesses to reopen after the fire set up in tents around the building. The mint also functioned as a bank for the federally sanctioned wire transfers that poured in from around the country—$40 million in the first two weeks alone, about $900 million in today's dollars.

For his efforts, Frank Leach earned a promotion to director of the mint in Washington, D.C. and the undying loyalty of his men. "Through his coolness and ability," Joe Hammill later wrote, "the men under him worked to the best advantage. He took his turn at the hose with the others, and did not ask his men to go where he would not go himself. It is remarkable how he stood the strain of the fire." The same could be said of the brave men who stood beside him, and saved not only the mint but perhaps also the U.S. economy itself.

Three decades after Frank Leach and his men saved the nation's gold, the Treasury Department opened a more modern mint, the New Mint, about a mile from the Granite Lady, which has been known ever since as the Old Mint (the last coin was minted there in 1937). In 1961, the Old Mint was declared a National Historic Landmark. The federal government began using it as office space in 1972, sharing the building with a small numismatic museum. Then, in 1994, the Treasury Department closed the building.

In 2003, the federal government sold the Old Mint to the city of San Francisco for one dollar—a silver dollar struck at the mint in 1879. The city then proceeded to give the building over to the San Francisco Museum and Historical Society, which plans to turn it into the San Francisco History Museum.

The $60 million restoration plan calls for seismic strengthening, and the transformation of the building's courtyard into a jewel-like galleria rising from ground level to a glass roof at attic level. Glass-walled elevators and bridges will allow wheelchair access and easy passage around the building. Plans for the Old Mint also include a welcome center for the city of San Francisco, a restaurant and—in the historical vaults—a numismatic museum. City officials expect some 350,000 visitors a year when the museum opens in late 2008 or early 2009.


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