Historic Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
A Brief history of Jim Thorpe, PA
Few people outside the region know about this town. Certainly, it's not as famous as Williamsburg, Virginia, or Santa Fe, New Mexico. In fairness, Jim Thorpe's Anglo-American history dates to only about 1800, and its monoculture of anthracite coal mining made it marginal compared to the cosmopolitan qualities of other towns and cities during the 19th century. Still, few recognize that Jim Thorpe, PA—known by its Lenni Lenape Indian name of Mauch Chunk until 1953—was the second most visited tourist destination in the United States after Niagara Falls during most of the 19th century.
Anthracite coal is was started the town, now numbering just under 5,000 people, although today the town is well received as a regional tourist hotspot with its beautiful and ornate Victorian architecture, famous historical sites, and year-round art, music, and cultural scene. Still, it remains relatively quiet, sleepy, and clearly, off the beaten path when the festivals and events are not in session.
Only 2 hours from New York City and 1.5 hours from Philadelphia, Jim Thorpe is close enough but easy to miss as it's tucked in a deep valley with splendid views of the Lehigh River.
Why "Jim Thorpe"?
Most people instantly recognize the name Jim Thorpe as the famous Native American athlete who competed and won Olympic medals during the 1912 Stockholm games and played major league baseball as well as excelled in football. In reality, Jim Thorpe had no roots in the town or the region.
The closest he got, while alive, was his attendance at the Carlisle Indian School near Harrisburg, PA. Yet today his grave rests on the outskirts of the town named after him along Hwy 903. When Jim Thorpe died in 1953, his wife (for alleged financial reasons) decided to cut a deal with the struggling towns of Mauch Chunck and East Mauch Chunck. The two towns merged and were renamed Jim Thorpe. It's unclear who the bigger winner in this deal was but certainly, it was a fitting tribute to a great man and his legacy. In the meantime, the town has recovered and reinvented itself brilliantly as a tourist hub.
Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway
This scenic railway travels 8 miles up and back the Lehigh River Gorge, taking just over an hour to complete the journey. A standard gauge track, it parallels a popular rails-to-trails bike path and crosses at least two bridges before the return journey.
The journey starts and ends at the historic Central Railroad of New Jersey Station, which opened in 1888. The fare is $14 for adults and $9 for kids (as of August 2018). Parking is located for a nominal fee of $5/day in the county lot between US 209 and the Lehigh River just north of the train terminal.
Note: This is a nice activity, especially if you have kids in tow, but in this writer's opinion, most of the view in the summer was blocked by trees! Plan to go in the fall when the changing colors might make the trip more interesting, but be sure to plan ahead and avoid weekends during that time of year.
Asa Packer Mansion
Built in 1861, this Italianate mansion was the crown jewel of the Packer family and home to Asa Packer. This 20-room mansion has an ornate interior with original furnishings. It stands elevated above Broadway and is a reminder of the wealth that the city had during the 19th century. During that time it is said 19 of the country's 26 millionaires had homes in Mauch Chunk.
Asa Packer founded the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and like many wealthy robber-barons of this age, went on to become a philanthropist. He also founded Lehigh University in 1865. Just a stone's throw from the Asa Packer mansion is the Harry Packer Mansion, a wedding gift from father to son built in 1874. Built of brick, Vermont sandstone, and New York blue stone, this Italianate mansion is now a guest house and hotel with original Mahogany interior. It was also rumored to be the inspiration for Disneyland's Haunted Mansion.
The Old Jail
This squat, hand-hewn stone building is a graphic reminder of the rigors of an inmate's life from the 19th century. Completed in 1871 the Carbon County Jail, as it was known, is most famous for its inmates, the Molly Maguires, who were imprisoned here between 1875–76. They were hanged here too in 1877. The jail is now a museum and holds 72 rooms with 27 cells and a dungeon.
It is an easy walk up Broadway, about 10 minutes from the Visitor Center, and a must-see for anyone spending time in Jim Thorpe. Guided tours last about 30 minutes.
Historic Stone Row
Take the high street from the Visitor Center, known as Race Street, and just past St. Marks' Episcopal Church (c. 1869) is a charming row of stone townhouses that is reminiscent of something from England. Today, many still operate small niche business such as gift shops, hand-sewn crafts, sundries, and a pub, as well as doubling as residences.
Take some time to take in the history and architecture—some of the door frames and paneling are most intricate and ornate. Make an effort to stop in St. Mark's Episcopal Church which anchors Race Street on the east side: it contains an original Minton tile floor from England, a beautifully ornate baptismal font, and Tiffany windows.
Mauch Chunk Opera House
Still holding performances, this vintage building was completed in 1881 and has the capacity for just under 400 people. It sits adjacent to Millionaires Row and is within the Old Mauch Chunk Historic District which includes 28 buildings mostly revival architecture of the Victorian era. John A. Roebling, who completed the Brooklyn Bridge, laid out the original town in 1831. Among the buildings are beautiful doors, frames, balconies, and historic plaques that commemorate events and famous guests who visited. Today many buildings remain true to their original purpose as lodging, bed and breakfasts and gift shops.