In 1858, a group of prospectors from Georgia making their way out to the gold fields in Oregon and California found gold along Cherry Creek near the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Located near its confluence with the South Platte River, this strike marked the location of what would soon become known as the City of Denver. Word of a new gold field spread much more quickly than the discoveries in California, for within a few months prospectors where rushing to land they had only heard of in rumor.
Ohio-born brothers Milton E. Clark and Austin M. Clark, and Emanuel H. Gruber founded their first bank at Leavenworth, Kansas Territory, in 1859. In January 1860, they purchased land in Denver City, and on July 10 the Clark, Gruber & Company Bank and Mint opened for business.
The Denver operation was distinctly different from their original bank in Leavenworth or subsequent offices in General City, Colorado Territory, or Salt Lake City, Utah. Initially, the company bought gold dust and transported it by wagon from Colorado to Kansas, then to be shipped east by train where it was eventually manufactured into either coins or bullion. Since the costs associated with the shipment, safeguarding and insurance for the gold dust where extremely high, and the average turn-around time for processing could be as long as three months, the company elected to purchase their own minting equipment in 1859. This was completed by Milton Clark who traveled to Philadelphia for the equipment and shipped it out to his brother and Gruber in Denver that same year.
The bank and mint in Denver was specifically organized and equipped to conduct an assaying and minting business as well as traditional banking functions. Accordingly, in 1860, Clark, Gruber & Company in Denver first struck gold coins in $10 and $20 denominations, and then soon struck the $2 ½ and $5 denominations. The July 25, 1860 issue of The Rocky Mountain News describes a visit by one of the reporters as he witnesses the initial mintage of the $10 gold coins:
“[Upon] invitation we forthwith repaired to the elegant banking house of the firm…and were admitted to their coining room in the basement, were we preparations almost complete for the issue of Pikes Peak coin. A hundred ‘blanks’ had been prepared, weight, fineness tested, and last manipulation gone through with prior to their passage through the stamping press. The little engine that drives the machinery was fired up, belts adjusted, and between 3 and 4 o’clock the machinery was put in motion and ‘mint drop’ of the value of $10 each began dropping into a tin pail with the most musical ‘clink.’ About $1,000 was turned out, at the rate of fifteen or twenty coin a minute, which was deemed satisfactory for the first equipment. The coins—of which none but $10 pieces are yet coined—are seventeen grains heavier than the United States coin of the same denomination.
On the face is a representation of the Peak, its base surrounded by a forest of timber, and ‘Pikes Peak Gold’ encircling the summit. Immediately under its base is the word ‘Denver’ and beneath it ‘Ten D.’ On the reverse is the American eagle, encircled by the name of the firm ‘Clark, Gruber & Co. and beneath the date ‘1860.’ The coin has a little roughness peculiar to newness, but is upon the whole, very credible in appearance, and is a vast improvement over ‘dust’ as a circulating medium.”
By the end of October 1860, Clark, Gruber & Company had struck $120,000 worth of dust into coins. These coins, known as “Pikes Peak Gold,” assayed at a higher value than the same denomination of United States gold coins and traded at a premium to “coin of the realm.” At no other time or place in U.S. history has nay other financial institution simultaneously conducted commercial banking and a gold coin minting operation. Clark, Gruber & Company’s Bank and Mint was truly unique.
As the Civil War progressed and an air of anxious uncertainty clouded the near future of the Union, Messrs. Clark and Gruber eagerly sold the assaying and minting function of Clark, Gruber & Company along with the building and equipment to the United States government for $25,000. Thus the Denver branch of the U.S. Mint was founded.
In 1865, the commercial banking function of Clark & Company (Gruber had resigned in 1864) was merged into a newly chartered “national association” called the First National Bank of Denver.