In Pa. cave reside some odd companions - a piece of New Jersey history and Spielberg films

A deed that lists Joseph Bonaparte, the exiled King of Spain and brother of Napoleon, as the purchaser of land located on a bluff in Bordentown in 1815. Deeds that show the sale of properties to freed slaves in the 1820s. A July 5, 1776, Gloucester County deed that may be the first time the new nation purchased real estate.

Copies of these South Jersey deeds are among millions of pages of records that are stored with other treasures in vaults inside a chilly, 200-foot-deep cave near Pittsburgh protected by armed guards.

The box that holds Gloucester County's deeds, which date back to 1686, sits between leased spaces for Steven Spielberg's films and for Social Security Administration records, says Jim Hogan, the county's elected clerk.

Talk about reverence for old deeds, some of which were handwritten in cursive, with pencil. Microfilm images of recent Gloucester deeds also are shipped there.

Iron Mountain, a storage management facility that opened in the 1980s inside a former limestone mine in Boyers, Butler County, is also the home of five million microfilm images of deeds and mortgages recorded in Burlington County since 1783.

Until five years ago, Camden County's records also were housed in the 55-degree, humidity-controlled facility run by a Boston-based global company that now has 1,400 underground and aboveground storage facilities.

A 2005 article published by the National Press Photographers Association compared the belly of the storage facility to the "set of a James Bond film."

Burlington County has gone beyond Iron Mountain to preserve its records. It retains its 20-pound, leather-wrapped deed books in an archival facility near the clerk's Mount Holly office and recently put all of its deeds and mortgage records online.

This double backup system is not cheap. County Clerk Tim Tyler said the annual lease at Iron Mountain is $4,000. Putting the documents online, along with old freeholder meeting minutes, cost about $1.4 million.

The 18-month project, which involved scanning all the deed books, is nearly complete, Tyler said. Currently, the public can view all of the deeds and mortgages through a website accessible at the clerk's office. Records that go back to 1965 can be located online from the comfort of home, free of charge.

"Look at the amount of time and attention the clerks far before me took to keep the records accurate and current," Tyler said last week. "We should all treat these records the same way - preserving them and making them available . . . They tell the history of the county one deed at a time."

Tyler had just pulled from the shelves a beast of a book, with a tattered yellow cover, that contained a copy of the deed for the 1,400-acre property sold to Bonaparte. A copy of that handwritten 12-page deed can now be found in the deed book, in a microfilm image at Iron Mountain and online.

Local historian Paul Schopp says he relies heavily upon deeds for research. These documents offer "an understanding of the people who lived here," he said. He said an interesting nugget of history documented by the deeds was how the Quakers had sold land to escaping slaves who later created Timbuctoo.

Hogan, a former police officer who has been Gloucester's clerk for 20 years, said keeping the records secure is important. The deeds that go from 1959 to now are online, while the older, original deed books are kept by the county's Historical Society in Woodbury, he said.

A complete copy of all these records is also at Iron Mountain.

"About nine years ago, I flew to Pittsburgh . . . to see what they were doing with my records," Hogan said. "They have armed security and we drove around in tramcar-like vehicles up and down the mine shafts," he said.

Hogan said he was impressed but decided he was not comfortable with keeping the deeds stored at Iron Mountain in a shared space along with the records of the county's copying services vendor. "I had ours moved into our own niche," he said.

Gloucester stopped creating deed books more than a decade ago and puts all new deeds online. But Hogan said he continues to send copies of them to Iron Mountain, at a cost of $562 a month.

"I personally feel it's my responsibility to not trust the computer systems of the world," he said. Hogan also said that the physical books are not enough backup because they can be destroyed in floods and fires.

A spokesman for Iron Mountain said the fear of a nuclear bomb in the 1950s during the Cold War was one reason the company's founder saw the potential in using the mines for secure storage of records, films, and other valuables.

Spokesman Christian Potts said the old limestone mine in Boyers includes 210 acres for storage of numerous articles, among them Spielberg's original ET film, etchings of Abraham Lincoln, iconic photographs of presidents and Hollywood stars, and, yes, even medical records and county deeds.

While Camden County kept its two million deeds and mortgages at Iron Mountain for decades, Deputy County Clerk John Schmidt said that it ended its contract with the company in 2012 in favor of putting the more recent records online and placing backup books and microfilm images in a nearby retention facility in Blackwood.

"It's not the side of a mountain, but it meets state requirements for storage facilities," Schmidt said.

Besides, Camden's two million images of deeds and mortgages go back only to 1844 and many of the earliest records are not originals. Schmidt said that a federal jobs-creation program in the late 1930s, under the Works Progress Administration, had hired workers to make typewritten copies of the handwritten deeds and replace them.

"There are very few handwritten deeds left," he said.

jhefler@phillynews.com

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

www.philly.com/burlcobuzz

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