Fort Knox, a Symbol of American Ingenuity

Growing up, I used to beg to go to Fort Knox. Every once in a while, as a special treat, my family would take the 40-minute drive down Dixie Highway, along the Ohio River. After what felt like an eternity in the car, I would see the big Army tank out front and know I was in for a good time.

Like a lot of kids, I was obsessed with all things military. My grandfather did his basic training at Fort Knox, and he would regale me with stories of his time at the base while we toured the public spaces. I loved seeing the tanks on display at the Armor Unit Memorial Park, and the exhibits at the General George Patton Museum. And, of course the building at the intersection of Bullion Boulevard and Gold Vault Road was one of the coolest places I could imagine. 

The United States Bullion Depository is home to more than half of all the gold reserves of the United States, and is one of largest gold depositories in the world. The building, built in 1936, is considered the safest building in the world, isolated from roads and rail lines, behind the impressive barrier of the Appalachian Mountains, surrounded by an Army base, and guarded by the U.S. Cavalry. It is a symbol of the power and wealth of the United States, recognized around the world. And it has put Kentucky on the international map through its appearances in film and other media.

The fort’s most notable appearance in film has to be as center stage for the third James Bond 007 film, Goldfinger, released in 1964. Given security considerations at the time, the film crew wasn’t allowed in or near the Bullion Depository, so the film’s director used his imagination for what the inside of the vault should look like (and was later congratulated by the comptroller of Fort Knox for his vision). Of course, the real vault looks nothing like it does in the Bond film, but no one knew at the time. 

Constructed of granite-encased steel-reinforced concrete, the physical structure is squat and imposing, with four guard towers built at each of its four corners. Inside the building, the vault is constructed almost entirely of concrete-encased steel and has a solid steel door almost two feet thick — a monument to American ingenuity.

All this security was necessary in the 1930s because gold was the underpinning of our entire economy.

Today, the U.S. dollar is what is called fiat currency, meaning it is not backed by anything other than the full faith and credit of the U.S. government. But before 1971, the U.S. dollar was backed first by silver and then gold, meaning each dollar was worth a certain amount of actual, rare metals, and the amount of those metals the U.S. had in vaults like the vault at Fort Knox represented how much our currency was worth. Today, dollars are measured against the value of other currencies around the world, and the U.S. dollar generally does quite well, serving as the official reserve currency of many other nations. It is now the strength of our economy that determines the value of a dollar, not the amount of gold in Fort Knox. 

But in the late 1930s it was all based on gold, and once the Depository at Fort Knox was completed, gold was trucked to Fort Knox from U.S. Mint facilities in New York and Philadelphia in order to keep the U.S. gold reserves more centralized and away from cities susceptible to foreign attack. Then the U.S. Mint Police surrounded it with fences, razor wire, and mine fields, making it nearly impenetrable. These days it is also guarded by night vision cameras.

Today, the depository at Fort Knox holds more than 4,500 metric tons of gold bullion, valued at approximately $235 billion, or just over half of the United States gold reserves. Its vault is also used to house various treasures the U.S. considers important, such as (at one time) the signed copies of both the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence, a copy of the Magna Carta, almost 2,000 golden “Double Eagle” coins, and 20 22-carat gold Sacagawea coins that flew on the Space Shuttle. 

Although visitors are not allowed in the Bullion Depository itself, the Fort Knox houses the General George Patton Museum and the Armor Unit Memorial Park, both of which are open to the public. 

So, if you find yourself near Louisville, or if you have a spot of “gold fever,” stop by and visit one of my favorite places in Kentucky, the most famous military base in the world.

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