Littleton Coin Company’s Collector’s Corner
[photo: The San Francisco Mint after the earthquake of 1906]

Designed by architect A. B. Mullett, and opened in 1874, the San Francisco Mint was one of the few buildings that survived the devastating earthquake of 1906. It served as a financial center for the city in the days that followed.

Surprise Quake Survivors


Many times, people correctly ask if there are factors which might have influenced the survival of a certain coin. It’s a good question and an important one, as some coins are more available than their mintages suggest, like the 1950-D Jefferson nickel, while others, like the 1831 half cent, are less available. That matter of survival in every case is more important than the mintage total, and if you have any doubts, simply try to explain why 1983 quarters are so tough in top grades today.

There can be any number of logical reasons that a coin did not survive in the numbers we might expect. Maybe few collected the denomination, as was true of double eagles until the 1890s. In other cases, like Morgan dollars, there might have been very heavy melting. And then there was the San Francisco earthquake.

Over the years, natural disasters have often been used to explain why some coins were tougher to find than we might expect. In fact, at one time or another, almost every natural disaster of the 1800s was probably used as a reason to explain why the 1844 Seated Liberty dime was so difficult to find. In fact, the 1844 was difficult to find because it was low mintage and not because it was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire and any other disaster.

The San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is another matter. What makes this disaster unique is that it is one which hit a town where there was a mint. There was never a Carson City tornado or Philadelphia hurricane or New Orleans fire, but there was a San Francisco earthquake, and San Francisco housed a very busy branch mint at the time. No other mint in the history of the United States has stood alone in the center of a destroyed city.

There is another factor as well. The earthquake which struck San Francisco on April 18, 1906 did more than simply shake the ground. It destroyed much of the city immediately, but what was as bad is that it touched off fires which could not be put out because the water lines were destroyed by the quake. What was not destroyed initially, in many cases, was destroyed by the fire that followed.

In the dark hours of April 18, 1906, the city of San Francisco lost every bank. The mint, affectionately known as the "Granite Lady," was still standing, but it was out of business because it used fuel from the city’s gas works, and that was destroyed. The fact that it was the only secure building in the city saw the mint used as the place to deposit relief funds.

What must be remembered is that this was 1906. There was no Federal Reserve System, and neither did people jump on airplanes every day traveling from one coast to the other with the coins in their pockets. The coins produced at a facility like San Francisco back in 1906 tended to stay in the San Francisco area. That would not be the case today, but it was very much the case back in 1906, and that means that in the rubble and smoking debris that was San Francisco, there were lots of coins, and especially coins produced at the San Francisco Mint.

It is hard to determine if significant numbers of coins were lost and if so, of what dates, but we can do some comparing to see if there is any evidence of earthquake losses in San Francisco coins of the period. Normally, it is dangerous to compare coins with other coins, as it can be like comparing apples and oranges, but in this case, by making appropriate allowances, we can perhaps see some evidence that the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 is still influencing the market today.

The three denominations San Francisco was producing back in 1906 which would have been in homes, stores, and other businesses which were destroyed were dimes, quarters and half dollars. If we limit comparisons to similar mintage coins of the same denomination from just prior to and just after the quake, we can potentially see if the coins which may have been destroyed are tougher today.

The 1901-S dime had a mintage of 593,022 and the 1903-S had a production of 613,300. The two were both slightly higher mintage than the 1913-S, which had a mintage of 510,000. In theory, the two earlier dates should be more available based on their mintages. Yet, they are both a number of times more expensive than the lower mintage 1913-S. Under normal circumstances, that does not seem correct, but an earthquake is not a normal circumstance.

The 1902-S dime was also likely to have been around the city, and its mintage is virtually identical to the 1914-S, yet the 1902-S is usually about twice as expensive as the 1914-S in some grades. The 1905-S had a mintage of about 6.8 million just prior to the quake, and that total is about 1 million pieces more than the 1916-S, yet once again, the higher-mintage date is generally more expensive.

In the case of quarters, there is the classic case of the very scarce 1901-S. The 1901-S, however, had a mintage almost double the 40,000-mintage 1913-S, yet it is the 1901-S that is much more expensive today. For the 1901-S with the significantly higher mintage to be a number of times more expensive than the 1913-S is hard to explain away as merely due to a lack of saving by collectors at the time. The prices are simply too far out of line with the mintages, and that makes anyone suspect another factor.

Other Barber quarters point in a similar direction. The 1902-S with a higher mintage is slightly more expensive than a 1907-S, and the same is true of the 1905-S, which had a mintage of roughly 500,000 more coins than the 1909-S, yet the 1905-S is usually more expensive. The 1903-S had a mintage over 1 million and the 1915-S was at 704,000, yet the 1903-S today is about twice the price of the lower-mintage 1915-S in lower grades.

The half dollar with its larger size was less likely to be buried forever in the rubble, yet there, too, we find dates like the 1901-S with a higher mintage than the 1913-S, yet it is the 1901-S which is more expensive. The same is true when you compare the 1902-S and 1914-S, or the 1903-S and 1915-S, meaning that half dollars, while somewhat less dramatic than the lower denominations, still follow the pattern of the earlier, higher-mintage dates being more expensive than the dates produced in the years following the famous quake.

In fairness, it all stops short of absolute proof that the earthquake is causing today’s higher prices in the earlier, higher-mintage dates. It may fall short of proof, but it is also an extremely unusual coincidence, and what makes it even more unusual is that it happens in all three denominations and in virtually every possible comparison.

We may never know just how great the impact of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was on the coins in the city at the time, but the evidence is very clear that dates from before the quake are more expensive than dates produced just after it. That strongly suggests that when you are holding a 1901-S or 1903-S in your hand today, you are holding not only a good coin, but also one of the survivors of the one disaster which had definite implications in the coin market.