US Coins

Casino owner sandblasted silver dollars to remove collectibility

In the early 1960s, the owner of Harrah’s casino in Reno, Nev., attempted to render silver dollars uncollectible by having their surfaces sandblasted, to keep them in casino circulation. 

William Harrah believed that by altering the surfaces of the coins, he could stem the exodus of silver dollars leaving in the pockets of collectors and tourists wanting souvenirs.

Harrah was dead wrong. The public still removed the coins from the casino regardless of their condition.

Collector and Coin World reader James Hollowell was in the United States Air Force stationed from November 1961 to February 1965 at Travis Air Force Base, 60 miles east of San Francisco. Hollowell recollects hearing a news report one evening during that period about a casino owner in Reno who was having the dates of silver dollars removed with a grinder to negate their collectibility.

While Hollowell got the general sense of the story correct, coin expert Rusty Goe from Southgate Coins in Reno added the specifics. Goe also provided images of some of the coins that Harrah’s Casino had sandblasted.

The sandblasted 1889-O Morgan dollar illustrated with this article was brought to Goe’s coin shop a number of years ago, he said, by a former employee in Harrah’s Casino who claimed to be part of the sandblasting crew.

“The old silver dollars played an integral role in the casinos’ Western-themed persona,” Goe said. “The clanging of them dropping into the slot machines’ troughs, and the ringing and tingling sound they made when blackjack and craps dealers stacked them and paid them out to players, created an ambience that patrons loved.”

Circa 1964, Harrah became dismayed at the thousands of silver dollars being drained from the casino by the souvenir-crazy public exchanging large sums of paper for the pre-1936 cartwheels. Goe said this exchange was around the time when several casinos in Reno had ordered 1.5 million silver dollars from the Treasury Department at face value.

Goe said this was the final such order before Treasury dispersals of the coins were ended.

“Bill Harrah, in a desperate move to stem the outflow of silver dollars from his casinos, commissioned his maintenance department to sandblast them,” Goe said. “He thought that by defacing them they would retain their hefty feel and clanking sound but look so hideous that patrons would not want them for souvenirs. The plan proved ineffective and silver dollars continued to disappear at a swift pace, spurred even more so by the rising price of bullion.”

Not long after the cessation of silver dollar sales by the Treasury Department, casino owners began contracting with the Franklin Mint and other private mints to manufacture base-metal tokens as silver dollar substitutes.

“I still have rolls of the sandblasted silver dollars that I bought from casino workers over the years,” Goe said. “They make good visual aids when I lecture about the story I’ve just told you here. I wasn’t even tempted to sell the sandblasted dollars when the price of silver rose to lofty levels in 2011.

“They are irreplaceable — with their hideous look and all.”

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