One Great Day in NJ: Sterling Hill Mining Museum

Confession:  I have never chaperoned a school field trip.  It’s been 29 years since I set foot on a yellow school bus.  Given the choice of a group tour or a month without chocolate, I’d forego the sweets.  Our kids go apoplectic at the suggestion of any outing not involving electronic entertainment, so you can imagine my trepidation at accompanying a class of second graders on an educational trip to the Sterling Hill Mining Museum in Ogdensburg.  Forget enjoying this day, I was just hoping I’d come out alive.

Why the Sterling Hill Mine?  The class recently completed their geology unit, was rehearsing a geology-focused class play, and had just read Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in her Head  (a great book I recommend your 2nd-6th graders read for your day’s inspiration, also.)  The Sterling Hill Mine houses a collection of minerals and fluorescent rocks containing over 340 mineral species, the largest combination anywhere, and over 70 of them fluoresce, the most in the world.  If you think geology rocks, this place is your Lollapalooza.

After a short trip on a bus with seats far smaller than I recalled (and seat belts? Whoa, times have changed!), we pulled in past old brick buildings and remains of a mining mill.  The kids launched out of the bus and into the parking lot to be greeted by our guide, Bob Hauck, son of one of the founders of the mine.  (Can we pause for a second to say that this man is a savior? He entertained and educated a hyper group of seven-year-olds for over two hours–playing games, asking questions, moving them along–with the grace of Jackie Onassis and the enthusiasm of Paula Abdul, circa early Idol days.) 

We started off at the Zobel Exhibit Hall, once the miners' locker room, filled floor to ceiling with artifacts from mining days; meteorites; fossils; minerals; art and more. Mr. Hauck told the story of a day in the life of miner, incorporating the objects around the room to bring the story to life.  The kids liked the hanging metal baskets dangling from the ceiling, used by miners to house their clothing at day’s end (much cooler than mom’s hamper.) Of course, the life-sized Tyrannosaurus Rex skull replica drew lots of “oohs” and “ahhhs” as we explored the fossil collection.  Then, on to the mineral collection, where kids were told they’d have to hunt for 3 specific minerals–you’d think they were racing around hunting for Easter eggs! Off to a great start...but could it last another two hours?

Outside, we entered the Sterling Hill Adit, a ten-foot wide, horizontal tunnel leading the way to the 1,300-ft underground stroll.  Into the dark passageways we proceeded, past mannequins displaying the attire and jobs of the miners, accompanied by light-hearted, yet factual, explanations by Mr. Hauck. Then, onto the Thomas S. Warren Museum of Fluorescence and into the first room, where each child picked a rock to hold under the black light to check which color the rock glowed, like magic! The next fluorescent room’s walls were completely filled with brilliantly-colored natural formations of fluorescent rocks.  Gasps galore.  Then we entered the Rainbow Room, the group’s favorite by far.  “It looks so cool and beautiful with all the lights! It looks like fireworks exploding!” exclaimed my charge, who is usually too cool to exhibit that much unbridled awe.  I had to agree; the “lights” were actually the fluorescent rocks in a spectrum of colors, glowing in a natural arch.  Nature’s laser light show. And everyone got to take a piece of fluorescent zinc ore home!

The following room featured glowing artifacts from the olden days (olden in our terms, not theirs) and a huge round fossil centered on the table.  After asking the children to simultaneously place their hands on the fossil and guess what it was, he gave the answer: poop!  (Ergo the above picture.) The last room featured another mannequin display, this time showing what the miners did at the end of day, preparing to leave the mine, as were we. 

Out in the sunshine once again, we proceeded to the Rock Discovery Center, where everyone received a partitioned cardboard box in which to place six specimens of their choice from large piles of rocks; an instant rock collection. With the concentration and competition the kids showed, you’d think they were trading Pokemon cards at a convention, not rocks! 

Our last stop was the picnic area.  We’d packed lunches, but the Concession Building offers a nice menu for those who want to head out sans coolers.  The same building houses a gift shop (which, thankfully, the kids were forbidden by the teacher to enter.)  I snuck in to check it out, and you should, too.  There’s everything from rock jewelry, to rock postcards, polished stones, hand-made rock gifts, rock get the idea...

Our great day at the mine ended as I squeezed back into my bus seat.  But I’ll be back, this time with Kindergartner and 5th-grader in tow.  And maybe, just maybe... with another class.

Check out the Sterling Hill Mining Museum's website for current pricing. Call 973-209-7212 for more information.

Originally published 2011




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