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The National Gold Bullion Depository at Fort Knox

Fort Knox Gold Bullion Depository

By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..
Several months before passage of the Gold Reserve Act of January 30, 1934, the United States Treasury Department began preparing plans for a high-security facility in which to store the nation’s gold. This was going to be nothing more than a huge gold vault, in a part of the country far from either coast, protected by the most modern methods, and within an established military reservation. Construction blueprints were prepared beginning in 1933, and the first gold was delivered there on January 13, 1937, all from the Philadelphia Mint. Thus, the United States Bullion Depository–popularly called “Ft. Knox”–entered American culture as a symbol of impregnable security and safety.

Origin of Fort Henry Knox

In January 1918, Congress leased 10,000 acres in the vicinity of Stithton, Kentucky, and established Camp Henry Knox as a field artillery training center. The camp was named for Major General Henry Knox, Chief of Artillery for the Continental Army during the American Revolution and later the nation’s first Secretary of War.

The post was closed as a permanent installation in 1922, but served as a training center for the 5th Corps of the United States Army, for Reserve Officer training, Citizen’s Military Training Camps and for the National Guard until 1932. Between 1925 and 1928, it was renamed “Camp Henry Knox National Forest”.

The Army established a Mechanized Force (cavalry) at Fort Eustis, Virginia, in 1930. It included armored cars, truck drawn artillery, anti-aircraft artillery, infantry tanks and engineers. The tank company was Company A, 1st Tank Regiment, and is known today as Company A, 1st Battalion, 66th Armored Regiment. It is the oldest tank unit in the U.S. Army. The Fort Eustis force was disbanded in October 1931, and its headquarters was moved to Camp Knox. Congress designated Camp Knox as a permanent garrison on January 1,1932, and changed the name to Fort Knox. January 16, 1933, brought the 1st Cavalry Regiment, the oldest mounted regiment in the U.S. Army, to its new home in Kentucky.

In the late 1930s, Fort Knox served as the center for cavalry mechanization and developed much of the tactics and doctrine that the Armored Force would use upon establishment.

Construction and Security

Satelitte images of Fort Knox taken by Europa Technologies and Google Earth.
Figure 1. Satellite views of the bullion depository, 2010. The once isolated building is crowded by an interstate highway inter-change. Photo at right shows the security perimeter. (Images copyright 2010 Europa Technologies and Google Earth, used by permission.)

The two-story basement and attic building is constructed of granite, steel, and concrete. Its exterior dimensions measure 105 feet by 121 feet. Its height is 42 feet above ground level. The building’s construction was supervised by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department, now the Public Buildings Administration of the General Services Administration (GSA). Upon its completion, the Depository was placed under the jurisdiction of the Director of the United States Mint.

Mint Director Nellie Tayloe Ross visited the nearly complete building in July 1936 and did not seem entirely pleased with the results:

The building is due to be finished the middle of August, but the District Engineer said he thought it would be nearer the first of Sept. He thought it important that the man in charge [Van Horne – RWB] be there several weeks ahead. For example, decisions must be made before wiring of telephones and the like are installed, [and] as to use to be made of certain space. Since seeing the building I am confident we will relocate the Chief Clerk and his subordinates. (The contract calls for the marking of all doors.) I’m pretty sure, too, after seeing the building that there is not room enough for all the platforms and trucks we planned for. These are things Mr. Van Horne and I must go into on top of other things[1].

Below the fortress-like structure lies the gold vault, which is divided into compartments and lined with granite walls. The vault casing is constructed of steel plates, steel I-beams, and steel cylinders laced with hoop bands and encased in concrete. The vault roof is of similar construction to and is independent of the Depository roof. The door of the vault weighs 22 tons and is blast-proof. No single person is entrusted with the entire combination to the vault – 10 members of the Bullion Depository staff must dial separate combinations known only to them. Beyond the main vault door, smaller internal cells provide further protection. Between the corridor encircling the vault and the outer wall of the building is space used for offices and storerooms.

The outer wall of the Depository is constructed of granite lined with concrete. Construction materials used on the building included 16,500 cubic feet of granite, 4,200 cubic yards of concrete, 750 tons of reinforcing steel, and 670 tons of structural steel.

Over the marble entrance at the front of the building is the inscription “United States Depository”, with the seal of the Department of the Treasury in gold. Offices of the Officer in Charge and the Captain of the Guard open upon the entrance lobby. At the rear of the building is another entrance used for receiving bullion and supplies.

The facility as a whole is ringed with several fences and is guarded by the United States Mint Police. At each corner of the structure on the outside, but connected with it, are four guard boxes. Sentry boxes, similar to the guard boxes at the corners of the Depository, are located at the entrance gate. A driveway encircles the building and a steel fence marks the boundaries of the site.

The Depository premises are within the site of Fort Knox, a United States Army post, allowing the Army to provide additional protection.

Figure 2. U.S. Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, Kentucky, shown just before the first transfer of gold from the PhiladelphiaMint. (Treasury Department photo 1937 from Library of Congress).
Figure 2. U.S. Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, Kentucky, shown just before the first transfer of gold from the Philadelphia
Mint. (Treasury Department photo 1937 from Library of Congress)

Of course, the building is replete with the latest and most modern protective devices, including alarms, surveillance systems, and numerous layers of physical security. The Depository is equipped with its own emergency power plant, water system, and other facilities. In the basement is a pistol range for use by the guards.

Public interest in the Fort Knox Bullion Depository was high, particularly in the Louisville area where this was one of the largest building projects in recent memory. The facility was being built on government property and a substantial guard force would normally have been on site. However, the Army had turned the land over to the Treasury Department, but Treasury would not take official possession until the Depository construction was complete. Thus, instead of uniformed Treasury Department guards, the construction site was protected by a spiked steel fence and a lone watchman on duty after working hours. All protection was the responsibility of the building contractor, Great Lakes Construction Co.

On Sunday, September 20, Robert Stigers, staff photographer for the Louisville Herald-Post newspaper, visited the site and took photos. United States Secret Service agent John Malley explained:

The gate in the steel fence was left open and the front door to the depository was left unlocked, so all Stigers had to do was to walk through the open gate, open the unlocked door and proceed through the vault and building to the rear, where he opened a small window and had his camera passed in to him through the window by a confederate.

Watchman Edward Johnson was on duty at the time and objected to Stigers’ taking the photographs, but made no effort to stop him or to confiscate the plates [i.e. 4×5 film]. Watchman Johnson is an aged man, almost illiterate, also very gullible. He is a native of this immediate rural section, and is neither useful nor ornamental as a watchman[1].

By the next day it was learned that an Associated Press staff photographer, Harold Harris, had accompanied Stigers and had also take photos. The photographers were not the only ones enjoying a self-guided tour of the high security vaults.

…the front door to the building, as well as the vault doors, were open or unlocked…and at that time there were at least twenty-five or thirty people, other than employees, inside the building and the vault, looking around. One young lady had a small camera and asked Stigers to show her how to make a time exposure, which he did. The two men shown in the photos were… merely bystanders who were asked to pose for the photographs[3].

The photos were published in the Louisville Herald-Post, and that was how the Treasury Department learned of the visitors. Agent Malley confiscated the newspaper’s negatives and destroyed them. Little more was done except to remind the construction company to lock the doors and put more watchmen on duty.

After the facility opened, Mint Director Ross paid multiple visits to the bullion depository to check on the welfare of its treasure and of its guards, most of who had moved to the area when the building opened.

I was very much pleased with conditions at the Depository. Everything looked ship-shape and the spirit of the men was generally fine, it appeared. Mr. Van Horne was in fine fettle and feels now, I think, that he is all but a native of Ky. He has built him [sic] a very god home at Elizabethtown and his wife, having fallen heir to some money, is building a four room apartment house there. You remember it was not so long ago that both were pining for a transfer. I found, too, that his guards have, most of them, become adjusted and like the country. A number of them have built homes for themselves.

…Mr. Van Horne and I made a midnight surprise visit to the Depository to see how they acted when people approached. They had an alarm drill for our benefit (all but calling the Army). They all got to their posts in a hurry and carried out the program. The grounds look very well considering that their facilities for caring for them are meager.

Gen. and Mrs. Chaffer had me for tea; the Van Horns for dinner. That is about the largest Post now, and you see there is talk of the Congress expanding it.

I spent Saturday morning at the Depository ad then Mr. Van Horne drove me and my baggage up to Louisville from where I stayed overnight, departing this morning[4].

Figure 3. Gold bars stacked at the Fort Knox Bullion Depository. These are older rectangular bars case before adoption oftrapezoidal “good delivery” bar shapes. (Photo courtesy Treasury Department.)
Figure 3. Gold bars stacked at the Fort Knox Bullion Depository. These are older rectangular bars case before adoption of
trapezoidal “good delivery” bar shapes. (Photo courtesy Treasury Department.)

The gold stored in the Depository is in the form of fine bars of .999+ fine gold and in .900 fine standard coin gold bars resulting from the melting of U.S. gold coins. These bars are somewhat smaller than an ordinary housing brick. Their approximate dimensions are 7 x 3-5/8 x 1-3/4 inches. The .999+ fine gold bars contain approximately 400 Troy ounces of gold, worth over $813,000 USD at present market prices. The avoirdupois weight of a bar is about 27.5 pounds. They are stored in vault compartments without wrappings so as to limit abrasion. When the bars are handled, which is very rarely, great care is exercised to avoid abrasion of the soft metal.

The Depository is headed by an Officer in Charge, who is responsible for ensuring the security of the gold. The guard force is composed of men selected from various government agencies, or recruited from civil service registers.

More Than Gold

Fort Knox has also been the temporary home of one of four contemporary copies of the English Magna Carta. This had been on display at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and was kept in the United States at British request when war broke out. France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Britain also entrusted parts of their financial reserves to Fort Knox, shipping it to the United States via Canada, to prevent them from falling into German hands. Near the end of the war, a portion of the Hungarian crown jewels, including the Crown of St. Stephen, were transported to Fort Knox after being entrusted to American GIs to prevent them from being confiscated by occupying Soviet forces.

“During World War II and on into the Cold War, until the invention of synthetic painkillers, a substantial supply of processed morphine and opium was kept in the Depository as a hedge against the United States being cut off from the sources of supply of raw opium.

“On April 30, 1941, worried that the war raging in Europe might engulf the United States, the newly appointed Librarian of Congress, Archibald MacLeish, wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. “to enquire whether space might perhaps be found” at the Bullion Depository in Fort Knox for his most valuable materials, including the Declaration, “in the unlikely event that it becomes necessary to remove them from Washington.”

“On December 23, the Declaration and the Constitution were removed from the shrine and placed between two sheets of acid-free manila paper. The documents were then carefully wrapped in a container of all-rag neutral millboard and placed in a specially designed bronze container, secured with padlocks on each side. The container was finally sealed with lead and packed in a heavy box; the whole weighed some 150 pounds. At about 5 p.m. the box, along with other vital records, was loaded into an armed and escorted truck, taken to Union Station, and placed in a compartment of the Pullman sleeper Eastlake. More Secret Service agents and a cavalry troop of the 13th Armored Division met the train in Louisville, KY, and convoyed its precious contents to the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox.

“In 1944, when the military authorities assured the Library of Congress that all danger of enemy attack had passed, the documents were removed from Fort Knox. On Sunday, October 1, at 11:30 a.m., the doors of the Library were opened and once again the Declaration was back in its shrine[5].”

More recently, the depository has been temporary home to the Farouk/Fenton 1933 double eagle coin transferred from 7 World Trade Center in July 2001, until the coin was sold in 2002 for $7.59 million. In 2004, 10 more 1933 double eagles belonging to the Langbord family were stored in a vault for safekeeping while ownership of the coins was contested by the government[6].

Curiously, a partial set of construction blueprints for the Fort Knox Bullion Depository has appeared at public auction. On June 16, 2009, Heritage Auctions sold lot #35023, a set of Fort Knox blueprints, for $6,572.50 including commission.

The catalogue description reads in part:

Fort Knox Bullion Depository Original Blueprints. Forty-six unique pages, with some duplication. Each sheet is approximately 38” x 24.5” and dates from 1933 to 1935. The pages, most drawn by different draftsmen, include: floor plans for the first floor, second floor, and basement; details of the vertical sliding doors, entrance gates, gatehouses, fence, main entrance, vestibule, lobby, vault entrance, vault, east and west walls of the vault, basement, first floor vault, and foundation; systems for vault armoring; and many other facets of the building considered the most secure structure in the world. Each sheet is marked “Treasury Department, Procurement Division, Public Works Branch”. The architect was Louis Simon and Neal A. Melick was the supervising engineer. Looking at these plans, it’s easy to see what is meant by the old saying, “Built like Fort Knox”. Light wear and aging, else very fine[7].

These were likely among the construction plans used by the building contractor and never collected by the Government when the project was finished. Modifications to the building and security perimeter probably render the blueprints obsolete.

First Gold to Fort Knox

Mint Letter Dated December 30, 1936.

In past decades, the United States Postal Service (USPS) had held several contracts with the Treasury Department for delivery of coins to banks, Sub-Treasuries, and later to Federal Reserve Banks. Postal employees were accustomed to handling high-value items and had a mature, well organized security system that was in daily use across the country. Officially, gold was shipped to Ft. Knox via parcel post, but to an observer, the USPS version looked nothing like what could be seen at the local post office. By December 30, 1936, a shipping plan had been worked out between the Mint and the USPS, as described in the letter above.

The first deposit of coin gold bars reached the Bullion Depository at Fort Knox, Kentucky, on January 13, 1937. This consisted of $98,781,995.80 in gold bars from the Philadelphia Mint[8]. Unlike the 1934 transfer of gold from the San Francisco Mint to the Denver Mint, which assumed an almost theatrical presentation, the Fort Knox transfers were kept secret. Of course, “secret” was something of a relative term when bars were shipped by rail, the cars bristling with armed agents. The rail terminal was several miles from the Depository building, necessitating a caravan of trucks and security officers at the station and all the way to the Depository’s large loading dock.

In recognition of the impossibility of complete secrecy, the Mint and the Treasury developed a press release, as well as plans for assigning newspaper and newsreel photographers to specific locations along the delivery route. The plans were not well coordinated with the USPS, who was in charge of the shipment, resulting in some press members being excluded and others given broader access than the Mint would have liked[9].

Figure 4. Treasurer’s account at the Ft. Knox bullion depository showing the first deposit of certificate gold bars. (NARA)
Figure 4. Treasurer’s account at the Ft. Knox bullion depository showing the first deposit of certificate gold bars. (NARA)

A week later on January 20, an additional $95,687,647.26 arrived from the New York Assay Office. Throughout the year, the total gold increased to $5,523,706,735.45 then remained stable until August 3, 1940, when the transfer of large quantities of gold bars began[10].

By the end of 1940, Fort Knox held $13,234,117,667.34 in gold bars with much of the increase coming from European payments for war materials prior to the Lend-Lease Act (Public Law 77-11). The total increased to $14,579,591,387.22 on June 30, 1941, where it remained through the rest of the year[11].

A press description of the arrival of the first gold train makes interesting reading:

Brig. Gen. Daniel Van Voorhis, commandant of Fort Knox, and Mrs. Nellie Tayloe Ross, director of the mint, and other Treasury officials were on hand for the initial shipment… [Lieut. Col. A. B, Canard commanded the Army guards.]

As the first shipment arrived a train pulled in, consisting of a couple of freight cars, a tank car and several passenger cars, and guards galore. It led the way, for soon the…train from the Philadelphia Mint slipped into the fort Knox siding. There were nine mail cars and five passenger cars to it, and more guards.

The Treasury shipped the precious metal parcel post and is going to pay the Post Offices Department for handling it; but the Treasury, backed by the United States Army, didn’t trust the Post Offices Department to keep the package safe.

Before arrival of the first shipment, members of the First Cavalry blocked a space about 150 yards’ radius around the siding. Here and there combat cars, each carrying machine guns, hovered around.

Then, huge trucks, each with a derrick, arrived, escorted by a combat car. The gold was loaded into the trucks and as each truck whizzed away, its combat car escort went along. At every turn of the road to the depositary itself, there stood a combat car, machine guns ready for action. Here and there along the road stood soldiers with sub-machine guns and side arms.

Arriving at the depository building…there were Treasury guards to watch the trucks roll up the new concrete roadway[12].

Before the first Fort Knox train departed, postal officials had examined the gold bricks and planned their part of the operation. Their experience in moving gold from San Francisco to Denver in 1934 helped improve the larger Fort Knox transfers. Use of canvas mail bags was abandoned in favor of sturdy wooden boxes. An initial idea was to build boxes small enough that one man could handle them. But in reality, this meant that each box could hold only two or three gold bars. Making thousands of these boxes and handling them would be expensive and increase the loss of gold due to abrasion.

Postal inspectors had larger boxes – about 15x8x7.75-inches – built to hold 18 bars, weighing five hundred pounds. These were tightly packed by Mint employees and the boxes bound with steel ribbon, then locked. Four boxes (2,000 pounds) were placed on a heavy wooden skid and strapped down. This kept all boxes in plain sight.

Each box was numbered and registered with postal clerks, and then the skids were loaded into mail trucks, with three skids (6,000 pounds) per truck. At the railroad depot, workmen used hand trucks to move the skids into reinforced postal cars with each car holding between 26 to 30 skids. Barricades bolted to the rail car floor prevented movement of the skids.

Two postal clerks rode in each mail car. Both were armed and equipped with tear gas and gas masks. Doors between cars were equipped with counters to record each time they were opened. The clerks had electric telegraph keys and were polled by Postal inspectors every 15 to 30 minutes. Inspectors also walked through the gold cars end to end at least once an hour.

When the train stopped for water or coal, inspectors stood guard and the 16 soldiers on duty (half of the 32 on the train) deployed around the train perimeter[13].

Between January and June 1937, 39 train loads of gold were sent to the new bullion depository. Twenty-two postal inspectors protected the trains, one of whom made 31 round trips. A total of 475 men worked on the transfers. There were few mishaps, although one soldier was killed when he fell off the back of an empty train, and a postal clerk broke his foot when he dropped a skid corner on it. Several workmen suffered minor scratches and bruises, and the roof on a dining car caught fire on one return trip.

The Treasury Department paid the USPS by value, not weight. This worked out to approximately $180 for each million dollars of gold; the boxes and skids got a free ride. Treasury also paid for soldiers and all Treasury staff associated with the transfer.

When the initial transfers were complete, all gloves, bags, boxes and anything else that the gold bars had come in contact with were burned. Ash and sweepings from Fort Knox were sent to the Denver Mint, where over 400 ounces of yellow metal were recovered from the sweeps alone[14].

* * *

Notes

[1] Wyoming State Archives. Edness Kimball Wilkins papers H-81-1. Box 9, Ross Correspondence 1936-1939. Letter dated July 21, 1936 to Kimball from Ross. p1.

[2] NARA-CP. RG 87, entry 29, box 84, file 148-4-4 Fort Knox. Letter dated September 23, 1936 to Moran, Chief, from John M. Malley, Operative in Charge.

[3] NARA-CP. RG 87, entry 29, box 84, file 148-4-4 Fort Knox. Letter dated September 24, 1936 to Moran, Chief, from John M. Malley, Operative in Charge. Additional similar incidents occurred during the latter part of September, although this is the only documented publication of photos.

[4] Wyoming State Archives. Edness Kimball Wilkins papers H-81-1. Box 9, Ross Correspondence 1940-1946. Letter dated April 4, 1940 to Kimball from Ross. pp1-3.

[5] “The Declaration of Independence: A History”, America’s Founding Documents. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

[6] The Langbord family lost in a 2011 trial, although no proof was presented that any gold coins were actually missing.

[7] 2009 June Grand Format Historical Manuscripts Auction #6026, Heritage Auctions, Inc. Dallas, TX. Lot 35023.

[8] NARA-P, US Mint RG104, entry 736, box 200.

[9] NARA-CP. RG 87, entry 29, box 84, file 148-4-4 Fort Knox. Memorandum dated January 6, 1937 to Ross from Gaston, Assistant Secretary of the Treasury.

[10] NARA-CP, US Mint RG104, entry 330, box 33. Ft. Knox daily cashier’s reports.

[11] NARA-CP, US Mint RG104, entry 235, vol. 509.

[12] “First of U.S. Gold Arrives At Fortified Kentucky Vault,”

[13] Ragsdale, William B. “Moving Gold Bricks A Complicated Job”, Associated Press, as printed in the Washington Post, May 1, 1938. p.TT6.

[14] A possibly apocryphal anecdote says that one day, several workmen sat on a stack of gold bars to eat their lunch. When the supervisor discovered this, he told them to enjoy their lunch, because when they finished eating, their pants were going to be confiscated. The supervisor reckoned that the workmen’s weight and friction from their rough denim pants had worn off a recoverable amount of gold. Supposedly, one of the workman was allowed to call home and have his wife bring extra pants to the bullion depository for all the men involved. The anecdote does not say how much seat-of-the-pants gold was recovered, or if the workmen were paid for their pants.

References

Kempf, Gary. “The History of Fort Knox”, Hardin County History Museum.

http://www.treasury.gov/education/fact-sheets/currency/fort-knox.shtml

https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-history

* * *

Roger W. Burdette
Roger W. Burdette
Responsible for much original numismatic research in recent years, Roger Burdette was named the ANA Numismatist of the Year in 2023. Besides CoinWeek, he has written for Coin World and The Numismatist, among others. He is the author of Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921 (2005); Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908 (2006); Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915 (2007); A Guide Book of Peace Dollars (Whitman, 2009); and Fads, Fakes & Foibles (2021). He also co-wrote the NLG award-winning Truth Seeker: The Life of Eric P. Newman (2015) with Len Augsburger and Joel Orosz. Burdette served as a member of the Citizen’s Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) from 2008 to 2012.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. One of the finest concise but complete narratives I have had the privilege of reading in all the years I have been in the hobby. It should be noted, R.W.B. has been accorded the status of Grand Master on the NGC’s chat board forum of Ancient, U.S., and World coins. A great read!

  2. agreed, Aydin. An outstanding historical review of a place we all have heard of but know little about the actual history.

    Great write-up, Roger !

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