The Truth Behind Why Fort Knox Is Among The Most Heavily Guarded And Secretive Places In The World

Image: Home Security

Fort Knox is a byword for the highest levels of security imaginable. Apart from the dedicated staff looking after the gold bullion, only a tiny handful of people have ever made it past the 20-ton steel door of the vault. But just what is the truth about the secrets hidden inside this squat granite edifice?

Image: Google Maps

Strictly speaking, Fort Knox refers to the military base where the gold bullion vault is located. The vault itself is properly called the United States Bullion Depository, but is almost universally known as Fort Knox. In fact, there’s been military activity at this site in Kentucky since the Civil War.

Image: Figmig

Built in 1861, Fort Duffield was the first facility at the site which was fought over by the Unionists and Confederates. Perched atop Muldraugh Hill, the site had strategic significance as it lay at the junction of the Ohio and Salt rivers and on the road between Louisville and Nashville.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images

After the Civil War came to an end in 1865, not a lot happened at the site. Then in 1903 the U.S. Army and the National Guard started to use the area for exercises. Subsequently, in 1918 the military leased a parcel of land extending for 20,000 acres.

Image: Gilbert Stuart

And that land was named Camp Knox after Henry Knox. During the Revolutionary War, Knox was in charge of artillery for the Continental Army. The military bought another 40,000 acres in 1918 and although the base was diminished after the First World War ended, a military training facility continued at Camp Knox.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: The Frank S. Errigo Archive/Getty Images

Godman Army Airfield was added to the base, and is still in use today. Then in 1932 the army established a permanent presence, and the name Fort Knox came into use. The base was now an important center for mechanized warfare.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Elias Goldensky

And in 1936 construction of the United States Bullion Depository started at Fort Knox. After all, where better to place a highly secure bullion store than on a military base? The need for the vault came from something called Executive Order 6102, a diktat issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: via Wikimedia Commons

The gist of Executive Order 6102 was that it prohibited “hoarding of gold coin, gold bullion, and gold certificates within the continental United States.” The ostensible reason behind the order was the claim that citizens storing up caches of gold was damaging the U.S. economy and making the Great Depression of the 1930s even more severe than it already was.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Sloan

But the real reason was that the government desperately needed more gold to enable it to print more money. The 1913 Federal Reserve Act required it to possess a minimum of 40 percent value in gold for all cash in circulation. Increasing the money supply, it was hoped, would help to end the economic slump. Executive Order 6102 compelled people to sell almost all their precious metal to the authorities at a fixed price.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Jaclyn Nash

As a result, the government rapidly found itself in possession of large amounts of gold bullion and coins. All U.S. citizens had to hand in their gold by May 1, 1933 and the government set a price of $20.67 per ounce. Penalties for failing to do so were stiff: a maximum $10,000 fine and a 10-year prison stretch.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Illustration by Scott Olson/Getty Images

However, the policy soon left the federal government with a problem. Where was all this gold that had now poured in to be stored? Between 1933 and 1937 reserves tripled from $4 billion to $12 billion. This is where the new complex at Fort Knox came in. And this was not going to be any old storage facility. It was going to be the most secure vault money could buy.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Keystone/Getty Images

The new vault was built on former U.S. Army land with ownership now transferred to the U.S. Treasury. Work was completed by the end of 1936 at a cost of $560,000 – a little over $8 million in today’s terms. Above ground, the building has the appearance of a fortress. The vault where the gold is kept, and sometimes other valuables as we’ll see, is actually below ground level.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bettmann/Getty Images

The underground vault has two levels and it’s a solidly built structure to say the least. In fact, 4,200 cubic yards of concrete, 16,500 cubic feet of granite and 1,420 tons of steel went into its construction. Four sentry boxes, one for each corner, guard the building and more guard boxes are located at the gates to the steel fence that surrounds the site.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Google Maps

Once the building was complete, the next problem was how to get the gold there. It couldn’t be flown in because it was just too heavy. So the United States Mint, now the body in charge of the depository, hit upon a brilliant idea. They’d post it!

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Al Fenn/Pix Inc./The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, the bullion wasn’t sent by the everyday method – the gold was transported to Fort Knox aboard trains with machine guns mounted. It was then loaded on trucks escorted by a brigade of U.S. Cavalry for the last part of its journey. Nobody was taking any chances with that much loot.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Rolls Press/Popperfoto/Getty Images

So just how much gold is stashed away at Fort Knox? In 2018, there was around 9,882 tons of the precious yellow metal in the depository. In cash terms, that’s worth something over $310 billion. But if you think that the Fort Knox depository is reserved exclusively for gold, think again.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Center for Civil War Photography

During the Second World War, Fort Knox was temporarily home to various key historic documents including the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. The documents were returned to their Washington D.C. home in 1944 as the threat of invasion of U.S. territory receded.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: KGM007

Perhaps the most extraordinary thing that’s been kept in Fort Knox is a massive stash of opium and morphine, which remained there until at least 1993. It was put there in 1955 during the Cold War in case nuclear armageddon should cut off supplies of these essential drugs. One report suggested that there was enough of the drugs to keep every man, woman and child in the U.S. medically treated for a year.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Bettmann/Getty Images

Unsurprisingly, this government facility deeply shrouded in secrecy has been a fertile source for conspiracists. For example, in 1974 a Washington lawyer called Peter Beter speculated that a mysterious elite had spirited away all of the gold. The story gained so much coverage that for the first and last time journalists were allowed into the vault to see for themselves that the gold was still there. Which it was.

ADVERTISEMENT
Image: Al Fenn/Pix Inc./The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

And that brings us back to the question in our title. Just why is the United States Bullion Depository at Fort Knox so heavily guarded and secretive? Well, the simple truth is, if you had a stash of gold worth more than $310 billion, you’d probably want to keep it as hush-hush as you could manage. And you’d likely have a fairly keen interest in keeping it as secure as possible, too.

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT