New Jersey. The Garden State. Home to countless corn, tomato, and dairy farms. It has miles of sandy beaches. And almost a quarter of the state is covered in coastal woodlands. But did you also know that the state has a long history of mining, dating back to the earliest days of its time as a British colony? Mining in New Jersey began as early as the 1630s. In northern New Jersey, at the site of Sterling Hill, a rich deposit of zinc was discovered, and mining continued at the site for over three-and-a-half centuries, until 1986. While mining has long been associated with states like Nevada, Minnesota, and West Virginia, New Jersey has one of the oldest mines in the history of the United States (via
Sterling Hill Mine Museum was established in 1989 to commemorate the history of mining in New Jersey. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991, this museum had long been on my wife’s list of places to see in New Jersey. When we were trying to figure out a new place to visit this weekend, she said, “Hey, want to go visit an old mine?” As I have never ventured any further underground than a subway station, this seemed like a fascinating destination. So on a warm Saturday morning in early August, we set off for the town of Ogdensburg to venture beneath the ground and learn more of the mysteries that exist right beneath our feet.
First, however, I wanted to share a restaurant recommendation in the town of Cape May, New Jersey, along with a few fun photos:
We took another trip to Cape May last weekend. On the recommendation of one of my wife’s colleagues from work, we tried Louisa’s Cafe for dinner.
Louisa’s was charming, and tiny! The restaurant holds approximately ten tables, and seats, at best, 30 people. It was established in 1980, and was one of the first fish/farm-to-table restaurants in the state.
The restaurant serves fish caught locally in the Delaware Bay and the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Cape May. The fruits and vegetables all come from nearby farms. My wife ordered the blackened bluefish.
I went with the scallops. The meal was fantastic! Two words of advice – Louisa’s fills quickly, so reservations are strongly encouraged. Also, the restaurant is cash only, so make sure you bring enough with you. Louisa’s might be a new favorite down the shore!
Although dessert looked scrumptious, we had other plans… a nice glass of New Jersey wine at the Cape May Winery & Vineyard, while sitting among the vines and enjoying a beautiful night.
What trip to the shore is complete without a sunset photo…
…or maybe two.
Our latest destination: Sterling Hill Mining Museum, located approximately fifty miles northwest of New York City, and close to the New York-New Jersey border.
As we headed northward, we left behind the flat highways that cover most of the state to roads that were far curvier and more hilly. While of course obeying all posted speed limits (ahem!) my Accord’s suspension made it fun to attack the curves at speed.
Unlike roadside attractions like our recent trip to the World’s Largest Penny, where a plethora of signage practically begged you to stop, Sterling Hill’s signs were rather understated. This was the biggest sign we saw! Thank goodness for GPS.
As we entered the parking lot for Sterling Hill, this train of mine carts was waiting to welcome us.
Our first stop was the visitor center to purchase tickets. Here you can also find a gift shop and a small cafe. In the cafe the signature dish is the pasty, nicknamed the Miner’s Lunch: a pastry filled with meat, onion, potato, and turnips. This hearty dish could easily be carried by miners down into the depths of the earth to sustain them as they dug.
With a half hour to spend before our tour began, we wandered around the exterior of the museum. This structure is the tipple – ore would flow from the mine to here, where it would be loaded onto waiting railroad cars.
I took this photo to show how ore would come from the mine (left) across the conveyor to the tipple (right). Note – the curvature is distortion from my phone’s panorama setting.
This caboose rests on one of the rail lines that led to the mine- railroads were (and still are) critical for transporting ore from mines to refineries.
One of the most eye-opening things I noticed was just how massive mining equipment is. This is one of the main hoists for Sterling Hill’s western shaft. It was responsible for raising and lowering miners, ore, and equipment. I’m standing on a hill to photograph the hoist – in actuality, my head comes up only to the middle of the hoist.
This elevator car lifting mining carts up from the mine shaft. In the background, you can get a better sense of how massive the hoist is.
Our tour began with a walk through the museum. In addition to the equipment used by miners, the museum also houses minerals, ores, gems, and fossils.
Before it was a museum, this building was where the workers would prepare to enter the mines, and where they would clean up when their shift was done. The showers are still along one wall.
Several rows of miners’ lockers have also been preserved as well.
One of the more interesting things we saw: miners would rent these hanging baskets from the mining company to stow their gear. They would also hang their clothes, which were damp from the moisture in the mines, to dry overnight before the next day’s shift.
The collection of minerals was fascinating. Not all the glitters is gold… this is pyrite, also known as Fool’s Gold.
Forged in the fires of the earth, this is obsidian, a smooth mineral formed from silica-rich lava. Fans of the TV show and book series Game of Thrones will also recognize this as dragonglass.
The fossils were equally fascinating, such as these crinoids, also known as sea lilies. These fossils were formed during the Paleozoic Era, over 300 million years ago.
The periodic table of elements… with the actual elements! Now THIS would have helped me study for chemistry in college! The only elements not included are those that are dangerously radioactive – a paper card is placed in those spaces.
One of the elements that caught my eye was Radium – thanks for my Mom’s suggestion, if you’re looking for a great summer read, you can’t go wrong with Radium Girls by Kate Moore, the true story of the young women who painted dial faces of watches with radium paint. Radium, which is highly dangerous when ingested or inhaled for prolonged periods of time, was used in make watches and gauges glow in the dark in the early 20th century. The Radium Girls, who suffered from radiation poisoning, brought legal action against their employers.
In a small, darkened room to the side of the museum was this display of fluorescent minerals, a small taste of what would be one of the most remarkable things we would see in the mines a little later.
Our museum guide gathered our group and then led us to our next destination: Sterling Hill Mine.
For over three hundred years, this was a working mine. The tour is through the mine’s first level, approximately 100 feet below the ground. The mine itself continues down to almost 2,700 feet below the surface, although the deepest parts of the mine are now covered in water.
“We must face the long dark of Moria. Be on your guard. There are older and fouler things than Orcs, in the deep places of the world.” -Gandalf, Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings. Beneath this grating is a mine shaft that runs over one thousand feet below the surface. It is easy to see how fantasy writers like JRR Tolkien would cast mines as a place of evil, filled with unspeakable horrors. Or maybe that’s just my runaway imagination…
My overactive imagination aside, however, this mine was, at its heart, a workplace for over three centuries. From this point, miners would ride down into the mine shafts.
Mining was, and remains, a highly dangerous occupation. Miners must contend with the threat of rock walls collapsing, poisonous gas fumes, injury from equipment, falls, and many other hazards. Miners would take these brass tags with them into the mines and place them back on the board when they returned. This let the mine managers know which miners were working in the mines at any one time.
This looked like something from another world.
While much of the tour goes through mine galleries from the 1830s, the museum created new tunnels as well for tours. A planned second exit from the mines off this tunnel stopped when a geologist noticed something unusual about the minerals in the rocks…
When exposed to ultraviolet light, the minerals in this section of the mine glow in fluorescent colors! Our tour guide gathered us in a section called the Rainbow Room and switched on UV lamps, revealing a magical glow from the rock face. The green and red colors come from willemite and calcite, minor ores of zinc that tend to occur together.
It was like nothing I have ever seen. This was nothing computer generated, and certainly there was no Hollywood magic here. This is Mother Nature at her finest.
We emerged from the mine and entered the old mill building, where the Warren Museum of Fluorescence was established in 1999. It houses numerous minerals and other items that glow in the dark. Under regular light, this rock looks like nothing special…
…but turn off the lights and switch on the UV lamps, and you feel as if you’ve been transported to another dimension.
I mean… far out, man.
And this is the end product of all this mining- zinc. These containers of zinc are from the New Jersey Zinc Company, the owner of Sterling Hill Mine.
As we were leaving, I couldn’t resist this shot! Can you spot the Accord? It’s a little smaller than the trains that were intended to stop there!
As we were heading home, my wife realized we’d be passing by another site on our “to see” list – Parsippany Rockhouse.
Formed by glacial boulders, the Rockhouse was used as a shelter by Native Americans beginning in 1250 BC and ending sometime around 1500 AD. The site also has two Native American petroglyphs, although despite over a half hour of searching, we were unsuccessful in locating them. No matter – it was still a cool place to see!
And after a day of adventure, we returned home yet again. Flying out of town twice in July for weddings, and using my wife’s Jeep several times for road trips, the Accord’s mileage accumulation has slowed down a little bit this summer. Stay tuned for a special trip in a few weeks that will put the Accord much closer to the 140,000 mile mark!
Despite being a resident of New Jersey for much of my life, the state continues to surprise me with new opportunities for exploration and adventure. Until this trip, I was completely unaware of the long history of mining in my home state.
Sterling Hill Mine Museum is well worth a day trip to visit if you are in the New Jersey, New York, or Pennsylvania area. Prices are reasonable – admission for adults is $13, seniors 65+ are $12, children ages 4-12 are $10, and children under the age of 4 can enter for free. Check the calendar for tours, as the operating hours vary based on the season. During the summer, however, tours are run at 10:00 am and 1:00 pm daily.
Thank you for coming along on another journey down (and below!) the open road ahead!
‘Til next time.