This Place Will Light Up Your Life: The Sterling Hill Mining Museum

In the fall, my husband and I enjoy a good Sunday drive, and we usually try to find a new place to visit to use as our final destination. One of our recent drives took us to the fascinating Sterling Hill Mining Museum in Ogdensburg, NJ. This place is fantastic! The museum is located on the site of a retired iron and zinc mine, the Sterling Hill Mine, which was the last operating mine in the state of New Jersey before it’s closure in 1986. A few years later, the mine was converted into a museum, and they have a couple museums, guided tours, mineral collecting and more.

Entrance to Sterling Hill Mine
The entrance to the Sterling Hill Mine

We decided to go check it out because they offer guests a chance to view something very, very special–fluorescent rocks! No, they’re not fluorescent on their own, but when they’re viewed under ultraviolet light, all kinds of amazing colors start to appear! The actual color you see is determined by the type of minerals that are present in the rocks (red for calcite, lime green for willemite, etc.)

When the rocks are hit with UV light, the electrons in the minerals get excited and emit light, thus making all the awesome colors appear. And when the UV light is taken away, some of the rocks will even continue to emit light, which is known as phosphorescence. And nope, I’m not a scientist and I’m pretty sure I missed the day we covered all of this in geology class, so that’s about as far as I can get into the “why”. For now, I want to tell you more about how you can see it for yourself!

In the fall and winter, tours are limited to once a day (and only on weekends in the dead of winter). You don’t need to buy a ticket in advance, but you do need to show up a little early to get your ticket so you don’t miss it altogether. When it’s time to begin, the group will all be escorted down the hill to the Zobel Hall Museum where you have about a half hour to poke around and check everything out. (You can also visit just the museum for $5, but you need to arrive at the same time the tour departs and you have to leave the museum when the tour groups do.) Personally, we thought that this was unfortunate because a half hour isn’t nearly long enough to explore everything they have in there!

The Zobel Hall Museum is housed in what used to be the miners’ change house. From the ceiling, you’ll see baskets hanging overhead where miners would change out of their wet and dirty boots and clothes, hang everything up in the baskets, and then leave everything to air dry overnight before returning for their next shift. Also, along the back wall of the museum is the old shower area where miners could clean up after their shifts, and the shower heads are still there today to give you a sense of what the room would have looked like in the past.

Hanging Baskets in Change House
The hanging baskets in the Change House where miners would leave their boots and clothes to dry overnight
Shower Area
The old shower area in the Change House

In addition, this old shower area is now home to case after case of fabulous minerals, all donated to the museum by the Oreck family (of vacuum cleaning fame). Each display case is more amazing than the next, and we were in awe as we admired all the stunning colors, shapes, and sizes.

Oreck Mineral Collection - 1
Part of the Oreck Mineral Collection
Oreck Mineral Collection - 2
More from the Oreck Mineral Collection
Oreck Mineral Collection - 3
Even more from the Oreck Mineral Collection!

The museum includes an impressive collection of old-school mining equipment, including various types of drill bits, headlamps, detonation devices and more. Of all the museum’s displays, we particularly liked the interactive periodic table which had little cubbies including items that represent each of the periodic elements (minus the radioactive ones, of course). And there’s also a tiny room in the back of the museum where you’ll get your first taste of fluorescent rocks.

Old Explosives Crates
Old explosives crates
Rocks! There are LOTS of them here!
Periodic Table of Elements
The interactive periodic table of elements

After you have some time to explore the museum, depending on the size of the group, you may be split into smaller groups to go visit the mine itself. There were nearly 40 of us there the day we visited, so we were split into two smaller groups. The first group went with the gentleman who did the initial intro in the museum. The second group, our group, was sent off with another guide who was…let’s just say…odd. He seemed like a nice guy, but he was definitely a bit strange which kinda brought our enthusiasm levels down a few notches. But never fear, the mine is still very cool to see!

The mine itself is built within a section of earth that is primarily marble, out of which iron and zinc were once extracted.  The mine includes about 35 miles worth of tunnels, and its deepest point is just over 2,000 feet below the earth’s surface. There are actually 25 different levels to the mine, but since the majority of the underground sections are flooded, you only get to access the top level of the mine (sorry if you had any coal-miner elevator fantasies or envisioned yourself riding along in a rock cart when you saw this was about visiting a mine). The temperature inside the mine is cool (around a constant 56 degrees), so you’ll want to bring a light jacket if you come during warmer weather. Also, there is a lot of standing water along the mine’s pathway, so I’d advise you to wear boots or old shoes that you won’t mind getting a bit muddy.

Inside Sterling Hill Mine
Inside Sterling Hill Mine

Within the mine section of the tour, our guide talked about some of what we were seeing, as well as the working conditions miners would have experienced over the years. We saw various equipment (such as lamps and rescue breathers) that miners would have carried on their person when going to work in the mines, much of which was original equipment that had been used in the Sterling Hill Mine in the past. We also saw the shaft station and learned how the miners would have been transported from one level to the next, not via elevators, but by these carts which would have carried 40 people at a time, as they were lowered deeper and deeper into the earth.

Mining Lamps
Mining lamps from the old Sterling Hill Mine lamp room
Shaft Station
The shaft station, where miners would stand on those yellow carts as they were lowered into the mine
Bell Signal Chart
The bell signal chart in the shaft station. The tour takes you to ADIT level only.

Towards the end of the tour, you get to visit some newer sections of tunnel that were not actually in use during the time the mine was open.  These sections were exposed in the 90s, and they include one of the highlights of the tour. Fluorescent rock in the walls! One area is called the Rainbow Tunnel and once everyone was gathered together, our tour guide turned the overhead lights off and turned on the UV lights.

And what a treat! The walls were shining in beautiful yellows, reds and lime greens. Our guide then turned off the UV lights, and in the darkness, all the rocks continued to glow but this time in a softer white and yellow color (there’s your phosphorescence happening!) There is a second section with exposed fluorescent rock you’ll visit as well before heading on to the final attraction of the tour, which is the Warren Museum of Fluorescence.

Rainbow Tunnel
The Rainbow Tunnel. Amazing!
Fluorescent Rocks in the Wall
More fluorescent rocks in the tunnel walls

Outside of the mine itself, the Warren Museum of Fluorescence is where the magic happens! This museum includes an incredible collection of more than 100 fluorescent rocks. Our guide had us enter the room in pitch black so that you didn’t know what was coming, and then when he lit the black lights, we were treated to three different rooms full of the glowing rocks.

Lots of Fluorescent Rocks
Lots of fluorescent rocks!
Assorted Fluorescent Rocks
Even more fluorescent rocks–I love that red and green one in the middle and the huge green slab on the right
Giant Fluorescent Rocks
Giant fluorescent rocks

We only had about 15 minutes to spend in here, and we made the mistake of spending too much time in the first two rooms, so I don’t even know what all was in that third room. Be sure to budget your time wisely so you have time to see it all! Once it was time to go, our guide flipped off the black lights and turned on the regular overhead lights, and all you saw was a room full of white and gray rocks. It seems so unbelievable to me that something so boring as a gray rock can turn into something so fabulous. It reminds me just how freaking awesome the earth and science really are!

Rocks Without UV Light
Rocks without UV light
The Same Rocks WITH UV Light
Those exact same rocks WITH UV light!

After that, our tour came to a close. Altogether, the entire experience was about 2.5 hours. I have mixed feelings about whether this is good place to take kids or not. It’s a long tour, and it takes a while to get to the fluorescent rocks part of the tour, which I imagine is what would be of greatest interest to children. But it should certainly appeal to the kid still inside of every adult because it really is super cool!

I hope you have a chance to check out the Sterling Hill Mining Museum at some point. It’s just a little over an hour’s drive from NYC, so it makes for a great destination for a Sunday day trip from the city.

Have you already been to the museum?  Did you know that rocks could even be fluorescent??? Let me know what you think of Sterling Hill!

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