A rare look inside the West Point Mint's massive gold vaults and coin operations

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About an hour and a half's drive north from New York City lies a treasure -- the gold kind. But it's not one that you can go and find.

In fact, you can't get anywhere near it. Because this treasure belongs to the United States Treasury.

Nearly a quarter of the U.S. government's gold sits beneath a windowless building on the campus at West Point.

"We've got approximately 54 million ounces here that we store, which is about 22% of the nation's gold," Ellen McCollum says from her office.

McCollum is the Superintendent of the West Point Mint; a facility built the same year as Fort Knox and originally housed the nation's silver.  

Most of that silver was sold off and now, the latest treasury department numbers show West Point is second only to Fort Knox in the amount of government gold in its vaults.

It's stored as bullion: big, heavy bricks of solid gold and silver.

FOX 5  NY was granted rare access -- supervised of course -- to one of their highly secure vaults.

Officials had to cut a numbered seal to open it.

We weren't allowed to shoot any video of the security process at West Point.

But let's just say, it was robust -- and for good reason.

In that one vault, there are 2,600 bars of gold bullion. At today's market value, each bar is worth about $500,000. That means that in that one vault, there is about $1.3 billion worth of gold, and that's not counting the silver.

"All the security that's required is here to secure these assets," McCullom says. "Trust me, I've been here a very long time and we haven't lost anything."

They don't take any chances, even employing assayers who use sophisticated chemical processes, including putting the gold in a 900 degree Celsius furnace to burn it down to the raw elements.

It's all to make sure the gold they acquire, is actually gold.

"It's my job to certify to the American public that it is 99.9% pure gold," Chief Assayer Jeannette Grogan says. But storing and protecting the Treasury's gold isn't all that happens at West Point.

You know how I mentioned you can't go find the treasure that's stored here?

Well, thanks to a new program starting this month, it might find you. They're referring to it as the Treasure Hunt Coin.

It's a nationwide program hoping to excite both old and new coin collectors.

At first glance, it looks just like a normal quarter. But there is something there that's never been on a circulating coin in the Mint's 227-year history.

A little 'W' mark known as a Mint Mark.

'W' is for West Point and throughout 2019, West Point will strike a total of 10 million circulating quarters in five different 'America the Beautiful' styles.

They'll then be mixed in with the roughly two billion normal quarters from the Mints in Denver and Philadelphia.

Number crunchers take note: that means only about 0.5% of all new quarters in 2019 will bear the West Point Mint Mark.

And the only way to get one is to check your pockets. "For anybody who collects coins, to find this is a real prize," McCullom says.

Collectibles are really the bread and butter of the West Point Mint. They strike coins and bullion made of precious metals (hence all the gold) and what's known as numismatic, or rare and collectible coins.

Coins like the American Buffalo, 24 Karat, one-ounce pure gold proof coin; on sale for about $1600. Asked if the $50 mark on the coin makes it legal tender, production manager Jennifer Butkus jokes, "It is legal tender. You'd be a fool, but yes."

West Point is also striking the Apollo 11 50th Anniversary Gold Coin. Approved by Congress, it's only the second time the Mint has ever produced a curved coin. On the front (or obverse in mint lingo) is man's footprint on the lunar surface.

On the back (or reverse) is an homage to that famous photo taken by Neil Armstrong on the surface of the moon. Buzz Aldrin's shadow reflected off his visor, the lunar module and Armstrong himself. Already iconic, it's now immortalized.

And struck in West Point on to a coin that's 90% gold, 6% silver and the rest copper. For some, coins will always be just coins. That change in your pocket that these days doesn't get you much. But to the folks here, it's more than just laundromat money.

It's the story of America. And telling future generations about our treasured past can be as good as gold.

"To me, we're making history," production supervisor Jeff Odom says, "This is something we can show our grandkids and say 'hey, we were a part of this.'"