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U.S. Mint San Francisco
In 1915, Wells Fargo transferred iron safes filled with coins from the U.S. Mint’s old Sub-Treasury building in San Francisco, left, to its new one, right. Both buildings are historic landmarks today. Photo Credit: Library of Congress and Wells Fargo Corporate Archives

How Wells Fargo secretly moved $3 billion through the streets of San Francisco

Rare video from 1915 shows Wells Fargo successfully moving $121 million — or $3 billion in today’s dollars — securely through the streets of San Francisco.

April 5, 2019
Alyssa Bentz
Alyssa Bentz

Alyssa Bentz is a Wells Fargo historian.

In 1915, the U.S. Mint in San Francisco at 5th and Mission streets needed to find a way to move $121 million — and quietly. Its Sub-Treasury, or branch building, on Commercial Street no longer fit the security or functional needs of the mint, which had used the building to store gold and silver coins.

Originally a four-story, brick building with a secure basement, the earthquake and fire of 1906 had reduced the Commercial Street building to a single floor and basement. Changes in federal laws also increased the flow of gold and silver stored by the mint at the Sub-Treasury. Between 1906 and 1913, the amount of money stored in the vault rose from $13 million to $90 million.

On the day of the last delivery, a newsreel cameraman came to record the momentous achievement. While Wells Fargo was featured in many of the popular silent films of the day, few exist today. This video is a rare film record of Wells Fargo team members in action. The silent film shows: Wells Fargo drivers and messengers caught on camera moving the heavy portable safes, a line of Wells Fargo trucks and wagons delivering the safes filled with coins, and a close-up of John Seymour, left, the Wells Fargo special officer who led the effort to move $121 million through the streets of San Francisco for the U.S. Mint in 1915. (0:54)

The mint did have a new space built for the Sub-Treasury, a grand building on Pine Street a few blocks away from the original location. The new space had more room and better security — with floors of reinforced concrete and doors of five-foot-thick steel.

Before the mint could start using the new building, however, it needed to find a way to securely move 100 tons of gold and silver coins and other stored money worth $3 billion in today’s dollars.

The mint started a quiet but important bidding process. It contacted various companies known for their ability to move money safely to submit bids and detailed security proposals for consideration. In the end, the mint chose to hire Wells Fargo & Company Express, because it presented a better and safer plan for the transfer of the money.

John Seymour led the operation for Wells Fargo. In 1905, Seymour became Wells Fargo’s chief special officer and head of security after James Hume retired. For many years before, Seymour led the detective force for San Francisco and had been involved in solving most of the high-profile crimes of his time. From 1910 to 1911, Seymour left his role at Wells Fargo briefly when the city asked him to take the position of chief of police.

Black-and-white photo showing bags of coins stored at the San Francisco mint.
This 1930s picture showing bags of coins stored at the San Francisco mint gives an idea of the scale of the shipment Wells Fargo moved for the mint in 1915. Photo Credit: National Archives

Seymour wasn’t taking any chances, and he proposed a careful plan: Wells Fargo messengers would use an elevator to lower portable iron safes into the Sub-Treasury basement. In the basement, messengers would carefully fill and seal bags of coins. Twenty bags were then placed inside one portable safe, which Wells Fargo messengers locked, sealed again, and loaded onto a waiting motor truck or horse-drawn wagon. Each safe held about $2.4 million. Moving all of the safes holding the Sub-Treasury’s money took 205 trips. Armed guards and mounted police officers escorted each trip.

Importantly, Wells Fargo didn’t try to move all of the money at the same time, since they realized that a parade of 205 wagons and trucks would raise unwanted attention. Instead, they planned smaller convoys of about six trucks and wagons. The move started on March 10, 1915, and ended on May 15, 1915. As important as the armed guards and iron safes, Wells Fargo created a sophisticated recording system that carefully tracked each individual bag. Everything went according to plan, and without the loss of a single coin.

A Treasury official asked the local newspapers not to publish any articles on the shipment until after it ended. The San Francisco Examiner declared in surprise and delight afterward that “Transfer of Money Accomplished without hitch and without attracting public notice” and that “aside from the presence of the mounted guards, there was nothing unusual about the Wells Fargo wagons.”

Carefully and quietly, Wells Fargo delivered millions in coins for the mint in 1915. Today, Wells Fargo continues to innovate new security plans that work behind the scenes to protect customers’ money.

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