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Zinc - a tale of two towns

  • Courtesy The Buckwheat Pit Mine, started in 1866 as a huge open pit mine with up to five underground working levels. The Buckwheat Pit was where most of the zinc ore was pulled from the Franklin Mine for processing in Palmerton…
    Courtesy The Buckwheat Pit Mine, started in 1866 as a huge open pit mine with up to five underground working levels. The Buckwheat Pit was where most of the zinc ore was pulled from the Franklin Mine for processing in Palmerton. The tunnel was where once mules pulled zinc ore from the mine.
Published January 16. 2010 09:00AM

Zinc, once a major industry in Carbon County, is a tale of two towns - Palmerton in Pennsylvania and Franklin in New Jersey. For more than half a century, zinc ore was mined in Franklin and smelted in Palmerton.

More than a century before Palmerton was to smelt its first ton of zinc ore, in the 1740s, iron ore had been discovered in New Jersey and by 1770, the iron mining and ironmaking industry that developed into the town of Franklin Furnace.

It turns out that Franklin is located at a unique geological junction where the shifting plates have created a location of about a square mile with the largest variety of minerals in the world, 357 species have been identified, of which 25 are found nowhere else in the world.

After iron, the second ore to be commercially developed was zincite, a form of zinc oxide used to make paint. The zincite was discovered in 1810, and in 1819, franklinite, an iron-zinc-manganese ore was identified. With this rich zinc deposit, the mining operations shifted from iron to zinc.

The story goes that in Franklin, there was a field of bladder campion, a plant found in zinc-rich soil. The field was located across from a buckwheat farm. Digging began on what became known as the Buckwheat Pit.

A number of companies worked the Franklin deposits from 1765 to 1848, but no one was able to successfully extract the zinc. In 1848 the Sussex Zinc & Copper Mining & Manufacturing Company was formed.

Four years later, when it developed the first commercially viable way to smelt the ore to produce zinc oxide, the company changed its name to the New Jersey Zinc Company. It began selling zinc oxide to the paint industry as a nontoxic substitute for lead, leading to the rise of ready-mixed paints.

In 1866, the Buckwheat Pit began as a quarry, but turned to tunnel-mining at the base of the pit. Mules pulled ore cars to the base of the pit where an inclined rail powered by a stationary engine house pulled the ore to the surface. When the Franklin Museum opened in 1965, the engine house became its headquarters.

By the latter part of the 1800s, up to 30 companies were mining at Franklin and Sterling Hill, four miles away. Conflicts over mining rights led to litigation. Eventually, the mining companies decided to consolidate, forming the New Jersey Zinc Company in 1897.

At the time, the zinc companies had their ore smelted at mills in Jersey City and Newark. New Jersey Zinc president Stephen Palmer sought a location with land to grow, coal to burn, and rails to get there. He found an area in Lower Towamensing Township near the Lehigh Gap, and founded Palmerton, though Palmer was reportedly not pleased with giving his name to the town.

According to Lee Lowell of the Franklin Mineral Museum, the Franklin Mine closed in 1954, and the Sterling Hill Mine closed in 1986. He said that the zinc in the Franklin Mine had become exhausted. The Sterling Mine may have closed because of low zinc prices.

The Franklin Mine property was taken over by the Franklin Kiwanis Club and established as a museum. The New Jersey Zinc Company donated the Engine House, which was stripped of all equipment and converted to a two-floor display area. In 1965, a new building was completed and since then, three additions have been constructed.

Besides the museum, visitors can visit the engine house and Buckwheat Pit, and the Buckwheat Pit dump where tailings of low- grade ore can be picked through for prospectors of the fluorescent minerals. Many of Franklin's zinc ores shine with bright colors under ultraviolet light.

The Sterling Hill Mine in Ogdensburg was originally mined in 1730 when it was mistakenly thought to be a copper deposit. British King George III granted the property to William Alexander, titled Lord Stirling, who then sold it to Robert Ogden in 1765. It went through several owners until the various mines were combined into the New Jersey Zinc Company in 1897.

The Sterling Hill Mine closed in 1986 and was foreclosed for back taxes in 1988. Richard and Robert Hauck purchased the property and opened it as a museum in August 1990. Tours are given of the mine where the zinc-rich mineral veins fluoresce under ultraviolet lights.

In 1898, the West Plant smelting operation was constructed in Palmerton. In 1911, the East Plant was established. Palmerton was officially incorporated in 1912.

Palmerton zinc smelting ended in 1980 due to a poor zinc market and environmental regulation. The East Plant continues to operate at reduced capacity, processing electric arc furnace dust into zinc calcine.

The Palmer family controlled the New Jersey Zinc Company until the death of Stephen's son Edgar in 1943, when his estate was forced to sell its controlling interest to pay inheritance taxes.

In 1966, the NJZ became a subsidiary of Gulf and Western Industries. In 1981, former officials of Gulf and Western's Natural Resources Division led a buyout of New Jersey Zinc and made it a subsidiary of Horsehead Industries, Inc.

Horsehead Industries, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2002 due to low zinc prices, production inefficiencies, and legacy environmental costs. Taken over by Sun Capital, the restructured company, focusing on zinc recycling, went public in 2006. In 2007, it bought back the shares from Sun Capital and now operate as an independent corporation.

For information on the Franklin Mineral Museum, see: For information on the Sterling Hill Mining Museum, see: For information on the Franklin Historical Society, see:

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