Sterling Hill Mining Museum and Tour
Ogdensburg, New Jersey
This is what an underground mine attraction should look like. Craggy, scarred cliffs, towering ore processing buildings and catwalks, rusting mine rail cars and piles of mining gear... The Sterling Hill Mining Museum has preserved it all, and conducts a unique tour into the depths of a retired zinc mine.
New Jersey's last underground mining operation, in the state's semi-mountainous northwest corner, closed in 1986. Fortunately, the Sterling Hill facility was acquired by two dedicated mine fans, brothers Dick and Bob Hauck. They spruced it up and reopened in 1990 as the Sterling Hill Mining Museum. In 1999, the Thomas S. Warren Museum of Fluorescence was added to the attraction.
Dick Hauck showed us around on a brisk walking tour (we're there to scout a video location for another project, but that doesn't turn off our tourist attraction curiosity). Though Hauck was never a miner, he is a knowledgeable and funny guide to the operation and its history (We already know what coprolite is, but his shtick is amusing anyway.).
One of the things we enjoyed about Sterling Hill is the layout -- the curving passageways, the descents and ascents, with mining dioramas around every corner. Mannequins sit propped against crates labeled "Explosives" or are positioned climbing ladders. It's all walking -- no mine car ride like other mine tours tout.
Our favorite moment is when Hauck points out a coal car full of ore. "That's left over from when Zoolander shot here," he said. He reaches in and lifts a large chunk, daintily, between two fingers. The coal is made of painted foam!
The 2001 movie Zoolander production crew spent two weeks prepping the mine and surrounding locations to look like a Pennsylvania coal mine. "They had truck after truck hauling real coal for that pile [outside], before they realized they could just paint rocks black."
Also interesting to us about Sterling Hill is that for a shut-down facility, it seems a veritable hive of activity. Outside the gift shop when we arrive, Hauck is diplomatically dressing down a contractor(?) about a delayed delivery of something important. Later we see a worker up on a cliff (outside the normal tour area), hammering at a jumble of rocks (Hauck sez it's unsafe and the guy is removing the hazard). Bang bang bang. As we approach a back mine entrance, the huge metal door -- creak -- opens and out steps another worker, in helmet, coveralls and covered in grime, pulling a green garden hose. Back in the Museum of Fluorescence, a tour group is examining rare minerals; suddenly Hauck and the tour guide are commiserating about something they really need "by Tuesday." It's as if there's a low level crisis brewing at Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory....
The mine is still a source of high quality fluorescent minerals, sold to help fund the non-profit operation. Each tour visitor goes home with a sample of fluorescent zinc ore in mine's "Rainbow Room." (The region is rich with fluorescent rocks -- the Franklin Mineral Museum and its collection is just up the road.)
In Sterling Hill's Zobel Exhibit Hall, there's a version of the Periodic Table of the Elements, 112 cubbyholes with a sample of ore from each element. You'll also see mineral artwork, fossils, and items invented by Thomas Edison, who owned a local iron mining operation.
As good as it is, we get the sense that Sterling Hill is a work-in-progress, with more displays and fun to come.
Note: A 9/11 Memorial stands near the parking lot, a rusted, twisted 20 foot steel I-beam. The beam was donated by Metal Management Northeast, Inc., a New Jersey company directly involved with the cleanup of the World Trade Center site.