Two experts share the history of the U.S. Bullion Reserve at Fort Knox with Kentucky Life.
Fort Knox, established in 1918, is an active military base located between Louisville and Elizabethtown, but most people know it for its role as the U.S. Bullion Depository. No visitors are allowed inside, and the exact quantity of gold held at Fort Knox is undisclosed.
“President Roosevelt decided the only way to bring the economy out of its situation was for the government to control the money,” says Fort Knox historian Paul Urbahns. “In 1933, Roosevelt signed the Gold Act which made it illegal for people to own gold.”
Americans sold their gold coins and other items back to the government, where the metal was melted down and formed into bars that weighed approximately 27.5 pounds each. Originally the gold was housed in New York and Philadelphia.
“As the 30s rolled on, there was a problem in Europe by the name of Hitler and [the U.S. government was] concerned about our gold reserves being attacked,” says Urbahns. “They decided to construct the gold vault at Fort Knox [in 1937] because it was 1,000 miles inland, and it was west of the Appalachian mountains, which at that time was a reasonable barrier. It was also home of the new armored force of the U.S. Army so they decided that would help protect it.”
In the 1970s, Fort Knox began conducting audits, hiring a group of young people from the area to assist with the tedious process of counting the gold. Doug Simmons was one of those employees.
“The audits were an outgrowth of a 1974 visit by [members of Congress] and the media to the depository in answer to a lot of politicians and pundits saying there was no gold in the depository,” Simmons explains.
“We thought it was going to be like ‘Goldfinger’,” Simmons says, referring to the 1964 James Bond film. “Then you realize you’re going down into the basement and the gold doesn’t sparkle. It weighs a ton…The glamour wears off at about bar number two.”
Gold isn’t the only treasure that has been housed at the Fort Knox depository. Priceless historical artifacts, including the U.S. Constitution and the Magna Carta, have been kept there for protection at different times.
Fort Knox is also legendary for its imposing security.
“Guards carried Thompson submachine guns, and .38 caliber pistols. It was old-school FBI stuff,” says Simmons. “A bunch of metal stacked in a building? That’s not fun. It’s more fun to believe that you’ve got pop up machine guns and you’ve got minefields and ground to air missiles, and [that you] can flood the vault.”
“In the earlier days, security was good, but today it’s almost unbelievable,” says Urbahns. “We used to be able to drive tourists up in front of the gold vault and take a picture of them standing in front the gold vault the way you would in front of any other government building. Nowadays, if you go by the gold vault and pull out a camera, they’ll confiscate it.”
This video is part of Kentucky Life episode #1919, which originally aired on May 10, 2014. View the full episode here.