LOOK IT UP : 13,000 People a Year Do So at National Archives in Laguna Niguel

Times Staff Writer

At least once a week for the past 10 years, Lois Salmans' search for her ancestors has taken her from her Newport Beach home to a massive, pyramid-shaped building nestled in the hills of Laguna Niguel.

There, in the National Archives on the first floor of the seven-tiered Chet Holifield Building, Salmans spends nearly eight hours glued to a microfilm reader, poring over names in federal census schedules dating back to 1790.

After all these years, Salmans has still not grown tired of her quest for the descendants of James Chichester, her immigrant ancestor who landed in Salem, Mass., in 1640.

"Oh, good heavens, no," said Salmans, 66. "I just hope I live long enough to finish what I'm doing."

Salmans is one of the more than 50 people a day--about 13,000 a year--who do research at the Pacific Southwest regional branch of the National Archives. Like Salmans, the majority of patrons are working on their family trees.

But whether they are genealogists, biographers, scholars, lawyers, environmentalists, social historians or students, if it's federal documents they want to peruse, they've come to the right place.

The regional archives is a virtual treasure trove of historical documents--a repository for everything from territorial Arizona court records to a cache of Richard Nixon's pre-presidential papers.

Among the treasures to be found among the archives' stacks are:

A copy of a letter from then-Vice President Nixon to Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union's Council of Ministers chairman, inquiring about the fate of 11 missing men aboard a C-130 U.S. Air Force transport aircraft shot down over Soviet Armenia in 1958. "It is impossible for the American people to believe," Nixon wrote, "that these 11 crew members disappeared without a trace and that nothing is known about them by the Soviet authorities. . . ."

Pilot Chuck Yeager's notes from his flight breaking the sound barrier in 1947 over what is now Edwards Air Force Base.

Errol Flynn's 1946 registration for his yacht Zaca. It certifies that Flynn will use the boat for pleasure, which the legendary Lothario underscored by having the word pleasure typed in capitals followed by five exclamation points.

The regional archives, which include material from federal agencies in Southern California, Arizona and Clark County, Nev., houses more than 17,000 cubic feet of original records. That's not to mention documents on 48,000 rolls of microfilm spanning everything from Revolutionary War military service records to immigration arrival records.

The amount of paper work produced by federal agencies over the years is staggering, and the National Archives in Laguna Niguel is one of 11 regional branches where the most historically and informationally significant material winds up for safekeeping (related story, Page 6).

Indeed, if the Smithsonian Institution is the nation's attic, the National Archives is the nation's filing cabinet.

The federal agency prefers to call itself "the nation's memory."

"To me, 'filing cabinet' sounds more like it's closed and people can't use it, and really the drawer is open," said Diane Nixon, archives regional director. "We like to think of the 'filing cabinet' as being accessible and open to everybody. And we want people to know this exists."

The National Archives, at 24000 Avila Road, is open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and on the first Saturday of each month for microfilm research only.

All 11 regional archives opened in 1969.

"Practically every (federal) agency has regional offices so they might as well keep those records in the region so they can be used by that agency and researchers in that area," said Nixon, regional director since 1984. "Our motto is, 'You don't have to go to Washington to visit the National Archives.' "

The National Archives-Pacific Southwest Region and the Los Angeles Federal Records Center moved into the Chet Holifield Building from an unsafe and deteriorating facility in Bell in 1975. (The 1.5-million-square-foot building, known as the "Ziggurat" because of its resemblance to an ancient Babylonian or Assyrian temple, also houses offices of the Internal Revenue Service, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Geological Survey and other federal agencies.)

The National Archives is housed on the same floor as the Federal Records Center, which currently stores more than 600,000 cubic feet of non-current records for federal agencies. Federal agencies are not required to store their documents in the Records Center, but Nixon said most do so because it is the most cost-effective way of keeping them.

Ninety-seven percent of the documents in the Records Center will ultimately be disposed of; only 3%--those records deemed "permanently valuable" by archivists--will be transferred to the National Archives.

Still, that's about 500 to 700 cubic feet of records a year. (One cubic-foot storage box, according to Nixon, will hold about 3,000 sheets of paper.)

The National Archives has the atmosphere of a library--without books.

The public portion of the archives includes a glass-enclosed textual research room where researchers can examine original documents, some dating back to 1851. Next to it is the microfilm research room, which has 40 microfilm readers for examining copies of records deposited in the National Archives building in Washington.

To view original records, researchers are advised to make an appointment at least one week in advance. Although researchers are responsible for conducting their own research, an archivist brings the records into the room and is available for assistance. To protect the records, no record may be removed from the room, and researchers may bring in only a pen or pencil, writing paper and essential reference books. An archival technician also is present at all times. So far, no one has been caught attempting to steal any records.

"We've been fortunate," said Nixon, "but we'll always have someone looking over your shoulder."

Because Hollywood falls under the regional archives' domain, famous names regularly crop up among its holdings of original material--so much so that, according to assistant director Suzanne Dewberry, "we're fondly known as the Hollywood branch."

Searching through the files for a planned "Hollywood at the Archives Exhibit," Dewberry found yacht registrations for Johnny Weissmuller, Hal Roach, Paulette Goddard, Lou Costello, Dana Andrews, Humphrey Bogart, John Barrymore, James Cagney and Errol Flynn.

The most fascinating movie star documents, however, are the declarations of intention for naturalization, many of which contain black-and-white mug shots. There are records for Ladislav Lowenstein (Peter Lorre), Archibald Leach (Cary Grant), Alfred Hitchcock, Bela Lugosi, Eric Von Stroheim, Victor McLaglin, Reginald Alfred Jones (Ray Milland) and Flynn. Perhaps the most intriguing original material, however, is Richard Nixon's pre-presidential papers (1948-1964). Nixon deeded most of the 400 linear feet of material to the federal government just before he became President, and it was transferred to the regional archives in the mid-'70s while he was living in San Clemente.

The majority of the documents cover Nixon's vice presidential period, from 1953 to 1961. Correspondence files include copies of every letter Nixon sent out and every letter he received. Represented are Nikita Khrushchev, Warren E. Burger, John Foster Dulles, Gerald Ford, Barry Goldwater, Dwight Eisenhower, Chiang Kai-shek, Willy Brandt, Omar Bradley, Jimmy Hoffa and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Not all the material stored in the archives is on paper, however.

Dewberry said the archives occasionally receives court exhibits that are considered permanently valuable, such as zippers used that were part of a patent dispute, engine parts and money.

The archives even stored a set of former President Gerald Ford's golf clubs until his presidential library was built.

Microfilm holdings include military service, pension and land records relating to the Revolutionary War, the Index to the Compiled Service Records of Confederate Soldiers, immigration and passenger arrival records, land records and Indian records--all of which are invaluable to people tracing their family histories.

They also have microfilmed minutes and dockets of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1790 to 1950 and records of the U.S. chief counsel for the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

But the majority of the archives' 48,000 microfilm rolls are federal population censuses from 1790 to 1910. (The censuses are not open to the public for 72 years; the 1920 census won't be available until 1992.)

As an example of the interesting individuals who crop up in the censuses, Dewberry showed a copy of the 1900 Census featuring the Marks family from the borough of Manhattan. Listed are the father, Samuel; mother, Minnie; and five children, Pauline, Leo, Adolph, Julius and Milton. Brief biographical information shows that Samuel Marks was a tailor, that his mother-in-law, Fanny Schonberg, lived with the family and that all the children were in school.

It doesn't mention, however, that the Marks boys will later change the spelling of their last name and gain worldwide fame as Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Zeppo Marx.

Off limits to the public--and behind a combination-locked security door--is the stack area of the National Archives and the Federal Records Center: a massive warehouse filled with row upon row of eight-foot-tall metal shelves. (The 8,400-square-foot Archives stack area is dwarfed by the 214,000-square-foot Records Center.)

Some records arrive at the National Archives in bad shape.

Dewberry and Nixon said they have heard of records being found stored in chicken coops and root cellers on Indian reservations. Records also occasionally arrive severely damaged by water and bugs.

As an example of the damage bugs can do to valuable historical records, Dewberry pulled a 1900 Arizona court record book from the shelf which appeared to be in excellent condition except for a few tiny holes in the heavy cardboard cover where bugs had bored in. Opening the cover, Dewberry revealed that the bugs had chewed a maze of holes throughout the record book's pages.

While most records arrive at the regional archives in good condition, Nixon said virtually every record is on acidic paper and "anything that contains acid ultimately will deteriorate."

Once documents arrive at the archives, the archival staff arranges them, writes a description of each record for a computerized listing and does preservation work: Documents are stored in acid-free folders and boxes and are kept in a temperature-controlled environment of 60 to 70 degrees and 40% to 50% humidity.

As director for the past five years, Nixon acknowledged an affinity for the old documents under her care.

"I think it's very important to preserve historical materials," she said. "The National Archives is the nation's memory. We play an important part in preserving that memory, and I think that's extremely worthwhile. And you see the numbers of people who come here all the time, and I think they share my feelings for the records."

Lois Salmans does.

"This is the day I pick daisies, I call it, the day I do what I want to do," she said, taking a break in her microfilm search for the husband of a 19th-Century relative whose maiden name was Katherine Waring.

"It definitely is exciting," she said. "I tell you I'm going to go through the ceiling when I find out who her husband is and what his connection is to 1640."

AMONG THE BEST FINDS IN LAGUNA NIGUEL'S NATIONAL ARCHIVES

The National Archives-Pacific Southwest Region in Laguna Niguel stores original records from 27 different federal agencies in Southern California, Arizona and Clark County, Nevada. Among the highlights are:

Bureau of the Land Commissioners' docket books, which list California rancho land decrees.

Arizona territorial court records.

U.S. District Court rolls of attorneys, which list the names of attorneys who were certified to practice before federal judges. Among the original signatures is that of William Howard Taft before his presidency.

Indian records. The largest holdings are correspondence from the commissioner of Indian affairs to the superintendents of the various Indian reservations.

Coast Guard and Customs records, including unit logs for vessels beginning in 1971, official merchant marine vessel log books, and yacht registrations.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration records.

11th Naval District records, which include the administrative correspondence files for San Diego and San Pedro-Long Beach.

Army Corps of Engineers records from 1898 to 1935, including the original plans and survey notes for the development of Ft. Pio Pico and Ft. MacArthur.

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