Northwest Corner: Sterling Hill

| 01 May 2019 | 01:11

    By Mandy Coriston
    History; industry; earth science; ecology; geology; chemistry. That list may seem like a school curriculum, but it’s also an overview of the many disciplines on display for the public at the Sterling Hill Mining Museum in Ogdensburg. The museum, which opened in 1990, takes visitors on a journey through time and technology to learn about the importance of mining in Sussex County and beyond, and showcases the reasons why the mine, along with its sister mine in Franklin, has earned the title “Fluorescent Mineral Capital of the World”.
    While the museum today functions as a non-profit educational entity, it was not terribly long ago that Sterling Hill was an operational mine owned by the New Jersey Zinc Company, which took over the property in 1897. The mine itself predates the establishment of Sussex County, when early settlers took to the hills in the 1640s, seeking stores of copper. In the 1700s, magnetite became sought-after, and while it wasn’t found in Ogdensburg, zinc was. And along with the zinc, something even more amazing was discovered- the ore which would become known as franklinite, interwoven with the fluorescent minerals willemite and calcite that would make Sterling Hill world-renowned.
    By the time the mine closed in 1986, due to rising production costs and the falling prices of zinc, Sterling Hill had established itself as a leading producer of fluorescent minerals, mining and selling large quantities of the franklinite, willemite, and calcite ore to museums and collectors worldwide. In 1989, brothers Richard and Robert Hauck purchased the land, determined to turn it into a museum to share the mine’s treasures with the public. The result is a living classroom, with outdoor exhibits, two artifact halls, guided mine tours, and discovery centers where visitors of all ages can learn about science, history, and technology.
    Daily, 2-hour tours are led by enthusiastic, knowledgeable guides, like environmental scientist Tony Luisi, who has been conducting guests through the museum for six years.
    “I came on a trip here, and fell in love,” Luisi said, “and I asked if they’d hire me for a summer. And that was that- here I am!”
    Luisi first takes visitors to Zobel Hall, the building which once housed the miners’ changing facilities, but which now holds over 12,000 artifacts including gems and minerals, lockers and clothes baskets, and even a hand-made, life-size Periodic Table of the Elements. Children and adults are encouraged to explore the museum and go on a scavenger hunt through the building. Luisi gives visitors time to take in the exhibits, and then lines up the group to go across the parking lot and enter the mine itself.
    It’s like another world inside the cool, dark entrance of the upper level of the mine, where air and water pipes run overhead, and the tracks for ore trains can still be seen. Luisi explains the temperature shift, and the dampness- a lesson in earth science. The mine itself is nearly 2700 feet deep, he says, but only the uppermost of the 25 levels is accessible; the water pumps used to keep groundwater from flooding the mine have long since been shut off, and the water seeping in from overhead takes more than a week to permeate the rock.
    Moving down the tunnel, Luisi skillfully takes his tour group on a journey into the life of a miner, from the lack of light and air deep in the mine shafts, to the grueling work of finding the zinc stores, breaking up the rocks, and moving people, tools, and ore to and from the surface. In the ‘lamp room’, it’s time for a history and chemistry lesson as Luisi talks about the fascinating evolution of the miners’ headlamp to the uses of zinc during World War II.
    “1,500 men a day worked this mine during the second World War,” Luisi said, “500 men a shift, three shifts a day, to bring out zinc ore for the war effort. They were excused from the draft because the work they were doing here was considered necessary. The government posted armed guards here to protect the mine and prevent anyone from stealing the ore.”
    The zinc mined at Sterling Hill was used for bullet and armament casings, and to create “sacrificial anodes”; these zinc bars were placed on steel ships to prevent corrosion.
    So, what about those fluorescent minerals? Luisi gives an overview on geology and mineralogy as he leads a group in the rooms carved out for viewing them under long-wave ultraviolet light. Visitors are encouraged to take photos of the phenomenon, which features glowing swaths of red, green, and blue. Near the end of the mine tour, an iron fence separates visitors from the shaft which at one time led to the lower levels of the mine. Now the cavern is filled with groundwater, reflecting off the mineral-rich ceiling of the tunnel. The blue water belies the depth of the excavation below.
    Stepping out into a small courtyard, the path leads next to the Warren Museum of Fluorescence, where artifacts from the Sterling Hill mine and around the world are displayed under ultraviolet. Luisi explains the fluorescent traits once again, then turns out the lights so his guests can take in the brightly-lit wonders for themselves. He points out a case of bright white Scheelite, the mineral which he says began the fluorescent rock collecting craze. Also on display are a miniature mining diorama, artwork made with mineral fragments, and a set of uranium glass tableware.
    Even when the guided tour ends, the discovery and learning continues. Visitors can try their hand at sluicing for minerals, check out locally-sourced fossils, and explore the outdoor exhibits to learn more about the history of the mine and the mining industry. There’s a gift shop and a snack bar in the Visitors’ Center to grab a souvenir or a bite to eat while taking in additional artwork and mineral displays.
    Sterling Hill Mining Museum’s Director and CEO William Kroth oversees the day-to-day operations and educational programs, and has been with the museum since 1992.
    “I came in as an engineer to determine the best way to go about opening the mine itself to visitors,” Kroth said, “I never left. Now I’m ‘retired’, so I’m here seven days a week. My wife is, too!”
    Kroth’s two-fold mission is to foster education and keep the mine on the global radar. The museum foundation offers scholarships and internships to Ogdensburg residents who intend to major in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields, and school groups are always welcome to visit and experience the mine for themselves.
    “One of the most important things to realize,” Kroth said, “is that we are neither promoting nor disparaging mining. We’re here to offer the history of mining, the science behind it, and show people that mining is a necessary industry that’s responsible for many of the things we enjoy as a society. What we do promote is stewardship and human involvement in the natural world.”
    Kroth beams with pride as he discusses an upcoming ‘big break’ for the museum. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is building its new Mignone Hall of Gems and Minerals, a multimillion dollar exhibition hall slated to open in 2020. And to be featured in the exhibit? A 44,000 lb., 20 foot-long slab of willemite and calcite mined from Sterling Hill’s Passaic Pit, a zinc node on the southwestern end of the property.
    “Our fluorescent minerals have always had us on the map,” he said, “but we’re going to really stay there now! They (the Museum of Natural History) get over 5 million visitors a year, and they’ll all be seeing our rock. It’s quite the opportunity for us.”
    Kroth said the slab was mined in late 2017 and the work was done by a specialized team of Italian marble cutters, who used diamond drills and diamond rope to make a clean slice in the mountain’s rock face.
    “It was amazing to see,” he said, “and now we’re left with the ‘mate’ to the piece cut for New York City. We’ll be building a structure over our half, and opening it to the public for viewing simultaneous to the exhibit hall opening in the city.”
    Kroth also loves being a part of the local community, with special events being held at the mine year-round.
    “We have a lot of fun with Haunted Halloween, and the O’burg 5K brings runners through the mine, which is pretty neat,” Kroth said.
    “We’re on a good trajectory here,” he added, “We’re still studying the mine, and identifying new minerals. That will almost guarantee we stay No. 1 in fluorescing minerals. And we’ve really hit the mark with education. This has truly become a place of learning and enlightenment.”
    Northwest Corner, a monthly explores what's unique about Sussex County. Become a ‘backyard tourist’ as we discover the places that make the northwest New Jersey extraordinary.
    What: Sterling Hill Mining Museum
    Where: 30 Plant St., Ogdensburg, NJ 07439 (follow signs to enter at Passaic Street, under the railroad trestle)
    Hours: Gift Shop, 8:30-3:30 Monday-Friday, 9:30-3:30 Saturday and Sunday, Tours Daily (call or see website for schedule), check website for holiday hours/closings
    Tour Cost: $12/adults, $11/seniors 65+, $9/children 4-12, free/children under 4. Some additional activities have nominal fees, see website for hours and details
    Accessibility: The tour is wheelchair and stroller accessible
    More info: For daily tour times, to schedule private or group tours, or for more information about the mine, the museum, and special events, call (973) 209-7212 or visit
    Tourist Tip: The tour requires a lot of walking, and the mine is 56o at all times. Sturdy shoes and a light jacket are recommended, and make sure your camera and phone are charged up- the damp atmosphere and lack of cellular signal inside the mine are a drain on the batteries in modern electronics!