Usually when you think about an underground mine, you only really imagine what comes out of them. Sure, mines may be where we go to retrieve coal and diamonds, but there’s a lot more to mining as a profession than many of us realize.
For starters, a lot of hard work and dedication goes into it. The people who work underground to unearth precious gemstones and the like risk life and limb nearly every day. And, of course, there are strange and unforgettable stories buried deep in the ground if you just know where to look…
Take the Sterling Hill Mine in Ogdensburg, New Jersey, for example. It’s full of zinc and it has an amazing history… plus a few other surprises!
The rural town of Ogdensburg, New Jersey, welcomes visitors driving in from Route 517 with the sight of two old brick structures. These are remnants of the bygone days in which almost everyone in town was somehow employed through the local mine.
In fact, Ogdensburg, full of hundreds of modest cottages where the hard-working miners and their families lived, was once a “company town” for the New Jersey Zinc Company—and it stayed that way for a few centuries.
The mine in question, later named Sterling Hill Mine, was once teeming with miners doing everything they could to extract the prized ore and all of the zinc within it. They achieved this by using black powder and even dynamite to blast the walls and search deeper into the caverns.
It was just as dangerous as it sounds, but it made the company and the city profitable until the mine officially closed in 1986. Just a year later, brothers Bob and Dick Hauck saw the closing as a business opportunity and purchased it at a tax sale.
The mine was gradually transformed into a kind of museum as the following decades went on. It now helps educate children and other visitors about the incredible history of the mine and all of the back-breaking work that went into it.
Not only is it historically significant, but the Sterling Hill Mine is one of the Northeastern United States’ largest underground structures. It burrows nearly 2,675 feet deep and it stretches about 35 miles long! The best part, though, is what you can see once you’re inside the mine…
Those who are interested in seeing this part of the mine in all its glory must walk 1,300 feet into it. Luckily, unlike what the miners once had to go through, visitors don’t need to climb or struggle at all to pass through it.
If you look straight ahead past the entrance, you’ll see a massive shaft that goes down more than 2,000 feet below the Earth’s surface. Even though there’s not as much zinc left as there was during the mine’s peak, there’s still plenty to admire!
There’s a relatively new 240-foot long section that was blasted as recently as 1990 (at the cost of $2 per foot), so visitors are now directed there to what is appropriately known as the Rainbow Tunnel. It’s really quite impressive!
Then there’s the Rainbow Room, where short wave ultraviolet lights reflect throughout the cavern to show off all of the hidden colors, especially green. This is the color of willemite, a mineral that is often a source of zinc.
Sapphires, rubies, garnet, and other jewels are supposedly hidden throughout the mines of the Skyland Region, and while not all of those precious stones are confirmed, there are plenty of other gorgeous crystal deposits there.
The mine also has plenty of reminders of days gone by, including figures with outdated equipment that was used as far back as the 1830s. They’re certainly not shy about showing what kind of dangers befell the miners.
For example, there are still plenty of large wooden doors called “air doors” that were meant to protect the men from toxic air where the zinc was being extracted. Luckily, no such danger exists for modern-day tourists.
The ceiling is held up by sets of three steel beams known as “square sets” that were tightly secured against the walls. Still, they didn’t stop accidents from happening. Thankfully, that’s not as much of a risk now!
The history of the mine dates back to 1630, when Sterling Hill’s mining operations officially began… even though the British settlers initially thought it was a copper mine! Still, King George III granted control of the mine to William Alexander, who also had the title of Lord Stirling, who in turn named it Stirling Hill before selling it to Robert Ogden in 1765.
The mine passed hands from owner to owner a number of times over the years until 1897, when it was combined with all of the mines in the region to form the New Jersey Zinc Company. A tax dispute a century later forced it to be put up for public auction before Dick and Bob Hauck purchased it for $750,000.
By 1989, the Hauck brothers renamed it Sterling Hill Mine Tour & Museum of Fluorescence, and by the next August, it was finally open to the public. In 1991, it was even added to the National Register of Historic Places, and it remains a popular tourist attraction.
Much like its neighbor, the Franklin Mine, the Sterling Hill Mine boasts at least 357 different kinds of minerals: that makes up roughly 10 percent of all of the minerals currently known to scientists! Plus, there are 35 minerals here that can’t be found in any other part of the world.
That includes these brightly colored ores inside the massive limestone deposits that the mine is made out of. The area was able to be mined in the first place because the malleable limestone dates back to the Precambrian era!
In other words, all of the mine’s deposits are roughly 1.15 billion years old! All these years later, it’s clearly developed into something special, and a place that will surely be cherished for many years to come for its beauty.
There’s a reason so many tourists are attracted to this place. Just because nobody uses it to mine zinc anymore doesn’t mean it’s any less special!
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