Barb and Greg Damon traveled to Maryland from Oregon to run a marathon and left with an unusual souvenir.
The Damons were among the first people who went to Fort McHenry Monday to purchase commemorative coins created by the United States Mint to mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812.
Barb Damon said she and her husband ran in the B&A Trail Marathon over the weekend as part of a quest to complete a marathon in every state. She said they also collect coins and couldn't pass up the chance to purchase a coin on the first day it was issued.
"We were excited when we found out this was happening," she said. "This is a piece of history."
Gov. Martin O'Malley, U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin and other political and civic leaders gathered at Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine to take part in the official "release" and sales launch of the coins, a $1 silver coin and a $5 gold coin, both highlighting the Star Spangled Banner and Fort McHenry's role in the War of 1812.
The Maryland-themed coins are the only commemorative coins that the U.S. Mint is releasing in 2012. Up to $8.5 million from the proceeds of the sales will go to help local organizations cover the cost of celebrating Maryland's role in the War of 1812, starting with a weeklong "Star Spangled Sailabration" that will bring tall ships and other vessels to Baltimore's harbor in June.
The coin release is one of the first events marking Maryland's celebration of the war's bicentennial, Cardin told more than 100 people gathered inside Fort McHenry's visitor center.
"This is an important moment in our celebration of the bicentennial," Cardin said. "We are on our way... We are ready to go."
The commemorative coins are "a fitting tribute" to Maryland's people, stories and history, and "a great way to support the bicentennial celebration," O'Malley said.
Activities such as the Sailabration are expected to draw more than 500,000 people to Baltimore and lead to the creation of 1,000 jobs in the tourism industry, O'Malley said.
"How many of you remember Op Sail?" — an earlier event that drew tall ships to Baltimore, O'Malley asked the crowd. "This is going to be Op Sail with a lot more sail. ...There are going to be a lot more people coming here. This is a big, big deal."
Although a portion of the money raised will go to the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission to fund projects and activities related to the celebration, the panel must secure private funds to match the coin sales proceeds before the federal money can be "drawn down," explained Bill Pencek, executive director of the Bicentennial Commission.
The Mint is selling 100,000 gold coins and 500,000 silver coins. The silver ones cost $44.95 to $54.95, and the gold ones cost $519.30 to $529.30, depending on whether buyers get an uncirculated coin or a proof. There is also a two-coin set for $579.30.
The "head" side of the gold coin depicts a naval battle scene with an American ship in the foreground and a damaged British ship in the background. The "tails" side of that coin depicts the first words of the Star Spangled Banner, which became the National Anthem in March 1931, in author Francis Scott Key's handwriting.
The "heads" side of the silver coin depicts Lady Liberty waving a 15-star, 15-stripe Star Spangled Banner flag with Fort McHenry in the background. The "tails" side of that coin depicts a contemporary American flag.
Within an hour, Mint representatives said, they had sold all 16 of the gold coins they brought to Fort McHenry for the one-day sales effort there, and more than half of the 400 silver coins they brought. After Monday, the commemorative coins can be purchased on line at http://www.usmint.gov or in person at the Mint's two sales kiosks in Washington, D.C.
Although the coins are legal tender and can be spent for face value, buyers Monday said they plan to hold on to them or give them as gifts.
Dave Hoover, a coin collector from Harford County, said he bought four silver coins, which he plans to give away as gifts, and one gold coin, which he'll keep. "I bought them to support the state of Maryland" and the bicentennial programs, he said.
Tom Noonan, president and chief executive of Visit Baltimore, the city's tourism office, bought three silver coins and one gold coin. Noonan said he was happy to see the event drawing out-of-towners such as the Damons.
"It's working," he said of the coin release and the bicentennial celebration. "We have our first tourists here already."