With a shrill wail, the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway train lurched from the station for an hour tour through heat-drenched coal country.
Figures on the platform became a slew of khaki shorts, t-shirts and sunglasses. The clock tower and Gothic Revival-style churches, their gargoyles lurking open-mouthed in the shadows, gave way to the Pocono Mountains, which quickly engulfed the town like images from a child’s pop-up picture book.
The scene was a mash-up of sophisticated Victorian and Wild West. Blend that with the extravagant recklessness of the 1920s, and you’ve got the eclectic town of Jim Thorpe, just two hours from Wilmington.
As the train rolled through the country, I heard “Darling, darling – yoo-hoo!” I looked out my window and a few rows back my sister, Leilah, had stuck her head out, waving and calling to me.
She was impersonating the flappers who once flocked to the town, which was the country’s second-most popular tourist attraction in the early 20th century, next only to Niagara Falls, according to the tour guide’s voice coming through the speakers. While it may no longer be a top two attraction, Jim Thorpe last year was selected by the USA Today Road Rally series as the fourth most beautiful small town in America.
But back to the pop-up book. The characters were there, the tone set. Aged librarians whispered the town’s tales to me amid bookshelves and creaking spiral staircases. An old man, Jack, on the mountain outside of town selling firewood from his home, talked non-stop, and ended up giving my fellow travelers and me a tour up the hill behind his house to see the old switchback trail, home to the world’s first improvised roller-coaster.
Flashing a perfect white smile, a town square food vendor wearing an earring and a bandana, told me about the Molly Maguires. They were a secret society of 19th century coal miners, four of whom were hanged for their supposed crimes.
Occult shops, such as the Emporium of Curious Goods, along with eccentric oddities packed into bookstores and gift shops, left an unnamable vibe hovering over everything as I walked the winding streets.
“Welcome to Jim Thorpe,” an old man on a bench said. He had presumably been lost in a book, but didn’t even look up at me when he spoke.
Above town loomed the Packer mansions, homes to the founder of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Lehigh University, Asa Packer, and his son, Harry. They were housed side-by-side and separated by a wrought iron fence. Asa’s mansion has been a museum since the 1950s, and Harry’s is a bed and breakfast that also hosts weekly Murder Mystery Weekends. Asa, who our mountain friend Jack described as “the Bill Gates of the 1870s,” was the richest man in Pennsylvania and one of the wealthiest in the country.
Besides its ample history and gorgeous architecture, the area offers attractions for outdoorsy types: white water rafting, kayaking, hiking, biking and nearby Glen Onoko Falls at Lehigh Gorge State Park. All contribute to the primary industry: tourism.
But as the town’s historical society recommends in a quote from Aristotle, “If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development.”
Jim Thorpe was originally named Mauch Chunk, and founded in 1818 by early anthracite coal pioneer Josiah White. The name derived from the native Lenape term “bear mountain” - one of the mountains allegedly resembles a sleeping bear when viewed from higher ground.
In the same year, White founded the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, and the area became a coal-mining and shipping hub, initially through intricate canal systems, and later through Packer’s railroad – the first one of significance in America.
In 1827, the first of the area’s many railroads was the switchback, a gravity railroad that delivered coal almost nine miles downhill from a nearby town and into the Lehigh Canal. Coal, and its transportation, helped fuel the Industrial Revolution and brought massive amounts of wealth to Mauch Chunk. It allegedly enticed 13 millionaires to live in town, although proof of their names or existence cannot be found.
Forty years later, after steam locomotion had taken over, the switchback fell into disuse, eventually becoming a major tourist attraction. For 50 cents a ride, thrill-seekers from around the country could swoop downhill at 65 miles per hour.
“Imagine. Walt Whitman rode this thing, wrote poems about it,” Jack said, showing us the wooded pathway, all that’s left of the switchback. “Thomas Edison was on it, and they asked him if they could improve it in any way. He said, ‘No, it’s a marvel of engineering.’”
While tourists and the wealthy flocked to the area, the coal miners themselves were treated poorly. The Molly Maguires had formed a union to gain better treatment, but in 1876 some members were accused of arson, murder and other crimes, and a series of sensational arrests and hangings took place in Mauch Chunk.
The most popular tale, told to me by the food vendor/pirate, is of one member, who, the night before his hanging, slapped a muddy hand print on the prison wall and said it would remain forever as a testament of his innocence. To this day, despite attempts to remove it, the supposed same marking remains, and tours are available for the curious to take a look.
By the mid-20th century, oil began to replace coal as the country’s primary fuel, but the town had already been in a “deep economic funk,” the librarian told me. “People in the ’50s were trying to find ways to resurrect it. They had a big movement to do that, and right at the same time (in 1953) the athlete and Olympic gold medalist Jim Thorpe died.”
Thorpe, a Native American, had never stepped foot into Mauch Chunk, but the wife of the Oklahoman couldn’t get his state or tribe to erect a memorial in his honor, so she looked for other options.
She heard about Mauch Chunk and its desperation to resurrect itself. “She approached the town, they made a deal, the town got the body, we did a memorial, and changed the name of the town,” the librarian said.
It was hoped the name change would bring back tourism, but it didn’t. “And then,” she told me, “about five years ago, some of his sons decided it was wrong for him to be here, that he should be back on the reservation in Oklahoma, and they started a suit. This thing has dragged out for one reason or another. The son that started it died, other sons picked it up, and right now the judge ruled that they have a legitimate claim to the body, basically, but the town is going to fight that legally.”
Another librarian added that she doesn’t think the change will take place.
Other locals, like Jack, seemed indifferent to the controversy, and with a shrug agreed that the name probably won’t change.
But it’s clear that no external sources, like the corpse of a world-renowned athlete, or even million-dollar enterprises such as coal and railroads, could provide what the area so effortlessly offers, and what brought the town back to its feet a few decades ago.
Just climb to the top of a secluded waterfall at Glen Onoko; gaze out at the valley from the century-old Flagstaff Ballroom yard, hundreds of feet above town, or give a toast at Molly Maguires Pub. I think you’ll know what I mean.
Author’s Note: My companions and I – Leilah, her boyfriend, Jimmy, our brother Nathan, and his fiancé, Rebecca – camped at Mauch Chunk Lake Park, just a few minutes from town. The campground caters to the family crowd, but with its picturesque lake, hiking, friendly staff, and good vibe, it’s a cool place for all. For more info, visit carboncounty.com/park.