Here's another inexpensive daytrip from my homestate that is easily made from the Philadelphia area, the Lehigh Valley, or even New York. It is taken from my guidebook Daytrips Pennsylvania Dutch Country & Philadelphia, which I plan on revising soon. This entry has been updated to late 2008.
Jim Thorpe, as the historic town of Mauch Chunk is now known, lies within easy daytrip range of Philadelphia and is a unique place well worth the journey.It takes its name from the great Native American athlete who astonished the world with an unprecedented record-breaking performance at the 1912 Olympics. Jim Thorpe was not born here, nor did he ever pass through here while he was alive. The story of how the town came to be named for him is a story of hard times: hard times for the man, who was unfairly stripped of his Olympic medals (since restored) on a technicality, and hard times for Mauch Chunk (the Indian name for "Bear Mountain") and East Mauch Chunk, booming coal and railroad towns in the 19th century, declining and economically strapped in the 20th. In 1953 Jim Thorpe died in poverty after a long, painful illness, and his wife sought to have him buried with a public memorial in his home state, Oklahoma. Oklahoma said no. Hearing of the plight of Mauch Chunk, Mrs.Thorpe proposed to lend the town her husband's name in return for their assistance in memorializing him. Though the towns had been squabbling for years, their citizens were inspired by this idea, transcended their differences, and merged to become Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
The town of Jim Thorpe lies at the bottom of a gorge on the Lehigh River, flanked by sheer mountainsides, in a region sometimes known as the "Switzerland of America." The town's appearance is as fascinating as the story of its name. In its heyday it spawned a slew of self-made millionaires who built the palatial residences and impressive public buildings you'll see on your walk. They were also responsible for Mauch Chunk's once being a popular summer resort, and for the railroading heritage that is still so much alive today.
By Car, Jim Thorpe lies about 81 miles northwest of downtown Philadelphia. Take the Pennsylvania Turnpike Northeast Extension (I-476) north to Exit 74, then US-209 South in a westerly direction through Lehighton into Jim Thorpe. Park by the train station for your walking tour of the town.
Most of the attractions are open daily from Memorial Day through September or October, but be sure to check the individual listings and their websites to be sure.The Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau office is in the train station, T: 1-800-762-6667, W: 800poconos.com. Some other helpful websites are: www.jimthorpepa.com, www.jimthorpe.org, and www.visitjimthorpe.com.
FOOD AND DRINK:
Emerald Restaurant & Molly Maguires Pub (24 Broadway) Irish-American and Continental cuisine in an authentic setting. T: 570-325-8995. $$
JT's Steak & Ale House, Hotel Switzerland (5 Hazard Square) This old Victorian establishment features American cuisine. T: 570-325-4563. $ and $$
Black Bread Café (47 Race St.) Sandwiches and vegetarian fare for a healthy lunch. T: 570-325-8957. $
Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
Downtown Jim Thorpe, a.k.a. Old Mauch Chunk, is best explored on foot. Begin your walk at the Jersey Central Railroad Station (1)(photo, top of page), a splendidly Victorian structure of 1888 that once welcomed hordes of tourists to the "Switzerland of America." Although regular passenger service ceased in 1954, vintage train rides are still offered on weekends and holidays from mid-May through late December. Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railroad, T: 570-325-8485, W: www.lgsry.com. The former Men's Waiting Room (there was another one for the ladies!) is now the local Tourist Office, where you can get information.
Follow the map up Packer Hilll to the nearby:
*ASA PACKER MANSION (2) (photo, above), Packer Hill, Jim Thorpe PA 18229, T: 570-325-3229, W: www.asapackermansion.com. Open day after Memorial Day through Oct., daily 11-4:15; April to late May and Nov.-early Dec., weekends 11-4:15. Adults $8, seniors $7, students $5, 5 and under free.
Asa Packer (1805-79) came to Mauch Chunk in 1833 and soon grew rich producing coal boats for the Lehigh Canal. By mid-century he had switched to railroading by raising the necessary funds to build the Lehigh Valley Railroad, a line running from Mauch Chunk to Easton that eventually stretched from the Canadian border to New York City, carrying coal as well as passengers. One of the wealthiest men in the country at that time, Packer was as much a philanthropist as a tycoon. He founded Lehigh University in Bethlehem, served two terms as a U.S. Congressman, served in the state legislature and as a county judge, and once ran for governor.
Asa Packer built this magnificent Italianate mansion overlooking Old Mauch Chunk (and his beloved railroad) in 1861, living there for the rest of his life. His daughter, Mary Packer Cummings, continued to live in it until her death in 1912, bequeathing the house and its furnishings to the Borough of Mauch Chunk and its successors. What you see today is not a restoration; it is the real thing, existing just as it was when the Packers lived there.
Among the highlights you'll see on the tour are the office with a desk that supposedly once belonged to Robert E. Lee, a parlor of true Victorian splendor, a main hallway filled with Gothic art, a sitting room with fabulously handcarved woodwork, and a dining room with stained-glass windows.
Head downhill and turn right onto Broadway, soon passing what was once Mauch Chunk's "Millionaires Row." Although few of the people who built these houses were actually millionaires, they were wealthy by the standards of the late 19th century, having gained social and economic prominence from their roles in the coal, lumber, and transportation industries. The Mauch Chunk Opera House, built in 1882, is still used as a theater and for various events including performances by leading pop stars. A bit farther along, the Mauch Chunk Museum (3), housed in the county's oldest church, traces local history with working models and other displays. 41 West Broadway, T: 570-325-9190, W: www.mauchchunkmuseum.com. Open weekends April to Memorial Day, Tues.-Sun. Memorial Day through Oct., and weekends Nov.-New Years Day; 10-4. Adults $5, children under 8 $2.
Continue up to the Old Jail (4)(photo, above), an 1871 penal facility that remained in use until 1995. It was here that seven of the "Molly Maguires," a gang of labor organizers, were hanged in 1877 and 1878 after a mockery of a trial. Be sure to see the mysterious "handprint-on-the-wall" that supposedly proves the innocence of the last man to be hanged here. At one time the jail boasted two gallows, one indoor and one outdoor, so bad weather was never an obstacle to justice. Highlights include 28 cells, a dungeon, the warden's apartment, and the gallows. 128 West Broadway, T: 570-325-5259. Tours: Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day, daily except Wed., noon-4:30; Sept. and Oct., weekends only, noon-4:30. Adults $5, seniors & students $4, children 6-12 $3.
Return on Broadway and turn right to Race Street, known for its Stone Row (5) (photo, left). This group of 16 row houses was built by Asa Packer for the engineers and foremen of the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Individualized with bay windows, balconies, and door styles, the houses were built of stone for fire prevention purposes. Today they are occupied by artisans, serving as studio, display, and residential space. Below this stands St. Mark's Episcopal Church (6), a Gothic Revival structure of 1869. Built into the hillside, this remarkable stone church contains some real art treasures, including early stained-glass windows by Louis C. Tiffany. There is also an ornate baptismal font with great gas standards representing the flames of the Holy Spirit, replicas of the altar and reredos in Windsor Castle, England, and a gold-and-silver alms basin set with jewelry.
Back near the train station is the Old Mauch Chunk H.O.-Scale Model Train Display (7), featuring over a dozen trains racing along some 1,100 feet of track lined with some 200 tiny buildings and crossing a hundred bridges. 41 Susquehanna St., T: 570-325-4371, W: www.omctraindisplay.com. Open complex schedule, check website or call. Adults $4, seniors $3, children $2.
Across the river on Route PA-903 (North Street) stands the Jim Thorpe Mausoleum (8), the final resting place of the renowned athlete. It is inscribed with the words spoken by Sweden's King Gustav as he presented Jim Thorpe with the gold medals at Stockholm's 1912 Olympics: "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world."
The Lehigh River offers some terrific whitewater rafting. If you want to shoot the rapids, try Jim Thorpe River Adventures (T: 570-325-2570 or 1-800-424-RAFT, W: www.jtraft.com) or Pocono Whitewater Rafting (T: 1-800-WHITEWATER, W: www.whitewaterrafting.com). Both firms also offer mountain and rail/trail bicycling and other outdoor adventures.
Feel like going underground? The No. 9 Coal Mine & Museum offers tours through the world's oldest continuously-operated anthracite coal mine (1855-1972) in nearby Lansford, just off Route 209, about 8 miles west of Jim Thorpe. For information T: 570-645-7074, W: www.no9mine.tripod.com.
There's also recreation at man-made Mauch Chunk Lake three miles west of town, and a great view from Flagstaff Mountain Park, some 1.400 feet above it. Railfans and hikers might also explore the bed of the historic Switchback Gravity Railroad, completed in 1827 as the first of its kind in America. Closed in 1933 and scapped in 1937, it is now being considered for restoration as a tourist attraction. For current information contact the Switchback Gravity Railroad Foundation at W: www.switchbackgravityrr.org.
Copyright © 2000 by Earl Steinbicker, updated to 2008.