Nestled in a narrow valley beneath three mountains is historic Jim Thorpe, PA, a quaint town with a blend of Victorian architecture and modern businesses. The scenery is breath-taking as the three mountains present a new look every season. This truly picturesque town is entwined in its eccentric past of millionaires and miners, money and misery, church bells and train whistles that will haunt you when you leave and draw you back to her charm time and again.
The town was originally named “Mauch Chunk” by the Native American Indians, meaning “Bear Mountain” as one of the mountains surrounding the town resembles a sleeping bear. In 1815 the earliest coal companies in Summit Hill, PA, built a nine mile wagon road along the creek from the coalfields to the Lehigh River and Lehigh Canal located in Mauch Chunk. Industry flourished in the 1820s as anthracite coal was shipped on the canal. At the turn of the last century, Mauch Chunk was the second in tourism in the U.S., surpassed only by Niagara Falls.
In 1827 a new means of transporting coal from the mines to the Lehigh Canal was discovered. Since Summit Hill is 1000’ higher than Mauch Chunk, wooden tacks were laid connecting the two towns allowing the rail cars to descend by means of gravity — a decent that was 96 feet to the mile. This became known as the “Switchback.” Mules road the Switchback down to the canal, the coal was unloaded and the mules pulled the cars back up to the mines. The trip took 35 minutes down, but the return trip took about 3 hours. The Switchback as a means of transporting coal quickly to the canal was a major factor in the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
In 1870 the Switchback received the distinction of being the first roller coaster when it was converted into a ride for visitors. The cars were changed to resemble trolley cars and the ride traveled at speeds up to 65mph. General US Grant, and Presidents McKinley, Garfield, Cleveland, and Roosevelt were said to have ridden the Switchback. In September, 1937, after interest in the ride declined, the Switchback was sold at auction. Today hiking and mountain biking trails exist where the Switchback once ran, but through the efforts of the Switchback Foundation, perhaps one day it will be rebuilt for us to ride again. Visitors can learn more about the history of the Switchback along with other town history in the Mauch Chunk Museum.
The coal and shipping industry also contributed to the success of a man named Asa Packer. Packer began his career as a carpenter and farmer, but the canal attracted his interest. He began to run canal boats and became involved in mining and shipping coal. In 1840 he was drawn to railroading, but money was scarce causing progress to be slow. He began the plans for his railroad, known today as the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and by 1851 he had sufficient shares in the company to have the line built from Mauch Chunk to Easton, PA. Packer is credited with building 650 miles of track from NY State to the NJ Seaboard. Packer died in 1879 leaving an estate valued at $54 million.
Asa Packer’s mansion, built in 1860, still stands overlooking the railroad and Lehigh River. When touring the mansion, visitors can view a bookcase of Robert E. Lee and a crystal chandelier from “Gone with the Wind,” along with richly carved walnut furniture, exquisite marble pieces and gold leaf walls. The Asa Packer Mansion was given to the Borough of Jim Thorpe in 1931 and is today managed by the Jim Thorpe Lions Club.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you will find the Old Jail Museum, formerly the Carbon County Jail, which was built in 1871, and was used as a jail until 1995. The jail contains 28 cells, the warden’s living quarters and 16 eerie dungeon cells. From 1877-1879 seven men known as “Molly Maguires” were accused of murder and hanged on the gallows inside the jail. The men swore their innocence. One man placed his hand firmly on the wall of his cell and proclaimed his handprint would remain forever as a sign of his innocence. Despite many efforts to remove the handprint, it remains to this day. Visitors to the Old Jail can view for themselves the handprint on the wall of Cell 17.
The end of the coal mining in the 1820s, followed by the closing of the railroad, caused the town’s decline. A hopeful solution for the town’s economic hardships came in 1954 when the boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk united as one borough under the name Jim Thorpe. The town’s name was changed to Jim Thorpe when the two towns offered a suitable monument for the final resting place of the famous Olympic Athlete, Jim Thorpe. Jim Thorpe is buried in a mausoleum on Route 903 at the entrance to the town of Jim Thorpe.
Boarded-up buildings and empty stores were the scene of the town of Jim Thorpe just a few years ago. The turn around started in 1982 when buildings began to be restored to their former Victorian glory. In 1980 there were only 17 businesses in the downtown historic district. Today most of the buildings have been restored to their original beauty and over 70 shops, boutiques, restaurants, galleries, and museums now call Jim Thorpe home. The Mauch Opera House is bustling again with entertainment by Jtams.
Many festivals are held in Jim Thorpe each year, but anytime of year is the perfect time to visit Jim Thorpe and discover our many attractions, eclectic shopping, and interesting eateries. Upcoming events include Fall Foliage Festival on October 14 and 15, Historic House Tour on October 1, and Trick-or-Treat Weekend for children in costume on October 28 and 29. Or visit during our Old Time Christmas Celebration on December 1-3, 9-10, and 16-17 when our many shops are filled with unique gifts for everyone on your list!
In addition to shopping & historical tours, visitors can enjoy hiking, biking, fishing, camping, boating, snow skiing, and whitewater rafting. Since Jim Thorpe holds much to see and do, you may want to stay an extra day or two and relax in an historic inn or guest house or be pampered at a charming bed and breakfast.
For more information visit www.JimThorpe.org or call 1-888-JIM-THORPE. See our display ad on page 7.