Wasco Hadowanetz, Borough Historian of Ogdensburg Credits: James Murphy
Railroad bridge, built in 1871 for trains to cross the Wallkill River, locally known as "The Backwards Tunnel" Credits: James Murphy
Sterling Hill Mine buildings off in the distance Credits: James Murphy
Train station on Railroad Ave., (now Kennedy) across from St. Thomas of Acquin Church, still standing Credits: James Murphy
Sterling Hill Mining Museum mine tour about to begin Credits: Jennifer Murphy
Historic Ogdensburg: Digging up Gems of the Past
Wednesday, August 29, 2012 • 5:31pm
OGDENSBURG, NJ – If you dig into Ogdensburg’s past, you will strike it rich.
What seems to be a sleepy town, only a conduit between Sparta and Franklin, was once the most important town in Sussex County. That stretch of Route 517 that lies in the valley between two mountains, Sparta Mountain and Sterling Hill covers a network spanning two empire-state-buildings-deep below that road. There are 35 miles of tunnels, and thousands of tons of gleaming rocks, which have employed, and sometimes entombed, hard working men for centuries.
In the 1600’s, early Dutch settlers found the rich ore on what is now called Sterling Hill. In 1760, William Alexander, who liked to be called Lord Sterling, purchased it, and formally opened the mine. With pick axe and shovel, holding torches, men began extracting minerals that exist only here and Franklin, NJ, and nowhere else on the planet.
The mountain is made of marble. Down below, it is as dark as pitch with no light. Ringing hammers and blasting dynamite echo, magnified by the hard walls. Place a UV light to it, and beautiful brilliant fluorescent colors come to life. Willimite, Zincite and Franklinite gleam incandescently in gorgeous crystalline patterns.
Miners worked in primitive conditions until 1889, when Thomas Edison, having sold his lightbulbs to GE, purchased an iron mine on the opposite side of the valley. There, he set up the New Jersey and Pennsylvania Concentrating Company, and one of the first electrified communities of 300 homes, on Sparta Mountain. Commuting from his West Orange laboratory, he often stayed at the Ogdensburg Hotel on Main Street, taking a horse and buggy up Edison Road, to the small town he named Summerville.
Such a distinguished visitor’s advice was sought after by the New Jersey Zinc Company, which then owned the Sterling Mine. Thomas Edison lent his expertise, and in his visionary style, helped redesign the entire workings of the mine, using electricity and conveyor belts to process the minerals.
Railroads replaced the canals, and many led to Ogdensburg, to remove the zinc from Sterling Hill, and the iron from Sparta Mountain. They also brought visitors and businessmen who opened stores, a post office and even an opera house. The town developed the appearance of a western town, and is even rumored that parts of “The Great Train Robbery,” Edison’s first feature film, were shot here. This was shown in Franklin, at one of the country’s first movie theaters, providing visitors with exciting weekend entertainment, along with the beautiful scenery.
In the early 1900’s, Edison’s mine failed, costing him several million dollars. He had attempted to use crushing rollers to break the rock, and magnets to extract the iron. Left with mountains of dust, he began The Portland Cement Company, which barely survived until a breakthrough. Edison’s concrete was used to create the foundation of the new Yankee’s Stadium in the Bronx in 1921.
Meanwhile, the New Jersey Zinc Company was flourishing. Zinc was used to coat (galvanize) steel to prevent it from rusting, to make alloys used in automotive parts, to prevent rubber tires from melting in the heat, and to make healing salves, sunblock and deodorant. Henry Ford was so impressed with the conveyor belts, he devised the assembly line production using them in Detroit. Edison’s newly designed rechargeable electric cap light saved many lives from horrible mine fires caused by torches. Steam engines provided powerful equipment, and eliminated the use of donkeys to pull full mining carts out of the mine. Workers were employed all throughout the depression of the 1930’s.
The company was good to its workers. Services, such as cleaning outhouses, were gratuitously provided. Homes were built and rented to workers. Bosses were experienced and caring. Hard labor produced a brotherhood of workers who held each other’s safety first and foremost in their minds. Laborers were imported from far away places such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Mexico, creating a diversity out of proportion to the rest of the county.
“Everyone got along,” says Borough Historian Wasco Hadawanetz, whose Ukranian father worked the mine for 44 years.
World War II saw another boom, as zinc, mixed with copper created brass, which was used to make bullet cartridges and bugles.
Schoolchildren who learn about non-renewable resources can predict the rest of the story. In the 1970’s most of the accessible minerals had been removed. Labor costs were up, taxes were up, and the price of zinc was down.
In 1986, things came to a head. Ogdensburg’s tax assessor determined the mine’s worth to be $8 million dollars. Mine owners appealed, valuing their property at $500,000. The town put a tax lien on the mine, and after six months with no warning, all employees were pink slipped, and that was it. The town now owned the mine. And no one had work.
For the next two years, stillness strangled the valley. The State of New Jersey was trying to find a home for tons of contaminated dirt, which had been removed from Montclair. They were also looking for a home for a new prison. The town put the mine up for auction. Angry residents hoped for a miracle when two brothers, Richard and Robert Hauck, from Bloomfield, put in the highest bid. They planned to buy the mine and turn it into a mineral museum. The residents of the Burg rejoiced, but found they were now winners and losers. The museum was to be run as a non-profit, creating a huge loss of revenue.
For decades now, the Municipal Buillding and the museum have silently co-existed on opposite sides of the valley. Frustrated by the superficial use of their facilities by local residents, the museum’s staff is reaching out to educators and administrators at the elementary and higher levels, seeking to integrate field studies in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), to stimulate young minds to embrace their unique science laboratory, to promote meaningful science and history projects, and to inspire young hobbyists,
"We want this place to be a field laboratory for educators and students to supplement what they are learning about in the classroom." said Board President Bill Kroth. "Our staff is all volunteer, but they are experts."