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The Mystery of the San Francisco Mint Cornerstone
What Secrets Does 'The Granite Lady' Still Hold Within?
How can a national treasure sealed within a granite cornerstone escape to reappear over thirty years later? Thus begins the mystery of the San Francisco Mint Cornerstone and the legendary 1870-S $3 Gold Indian Princess Head Coin…
Records reveal that one and only one specimen of the 1870-S $3 Gold coin was struck – specifically to be sealed within the cornerstone of the new San Francisco Mint building soon to be built at the corner of Fifth and Mission Streets. The cornerstone itself remains a perplexing mystery. On May 25, 1870, a grand Masonic ceremony was held to lay this symbolic piece of the building's foundation. Newspapers of the day reported that the cornerstone was on the northeast side and that it was filled with one of each of the 1870-dated coins struck by the newly-established San Francisco Branch Mint.
Despite such eye-witness reports, the actual cornerstone housing these historic treasures has never been located. There are those who have speculated that the cornerstone might have been damaged or removed following the devastating 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. However, news reports from 1906 show that the ”Granite Lady” (as the solid and imposing Mint building had become known) actually withstood the earthquake astonishingly well.
The Granite Lady Saved
Because the Pacific Coast was subject to earthquakes, the architect of the Granite Lady actually designed the mint building to "float" on its foundations in an earthquake, rather than shatter. This remarkable foresight was validated when the mint rode out the severe earthquake of Wednesday, April 18, 1906, practically undamaged. Valiant Treasury Department employees, using only small hoses connected to newly-built, saved the Mint building (and $200 million in gold inside its vaults) from the resulting fire that destroyed commercial San Francisco after the earthquake. With the downtown area and its banks destroyed, the San Francisco Mint was the only financial institution able to open for business in San Francisco and it became the depository and treasury for the city's relief fund. Such a feat of survival make it unlikely that such a key building component as the cornerstone would have been fractured open or even removed. However, the mystery of its location persists to this very day…
The Magical Appearance of the 1870-S $3 Gold Indian Princess
As stated, only one example of the 1870-S $3 Gold Indian Princess coin (pictured left) was reportedly struck for inclusion in the Mint's cornerstone. Either that coin miraculously escaped, or a second unauthorized coin was possibly struck as a pocket piece for San Francisco Mint Coiner J.B. Harmstead. No one knows for certain.
In any event, this legendary coin (showing traces of possible jewelry use) mysteriously appeared in the numismatic market in 1907. It was sold to prominent collector William H. Woodin. After the Woodin collection was subsequently sold in 1911, the coin passed through a number of private collections before being offered in Bowers and Merena's October 1982 sale of the famous Eliasberg U.S. Gold Collection, where it sold for a record price of $687,500.
Was the Eliasberg $3 Gold Piece the same gold coin sealed within the granite cornerstone on that warm San Francisco spring day in 1870? Or was it a mysterious 'sister' to a national treasure that still lies sealed somewhere within the foundation of the Granite Lady herself – a site passed by thousands of people each and every day? Perhaps new technology will allow us to probe within the foundation's walls and will one day reveal the long-awaited answer to the Mystery of the Granite Lady.