Jim Thorpe, PA – America’s ‘Little Switzerland’ beckons your visit

Photo by Jeff Bahr/ Street traffic through Jim Thorpe, Pa.


By Jeff Bahr

Europe in our backyard A land of enchantment, seemingly locked in a time-warp, exists roughly 100 miles to the west of Kearny, yet many from our region have never even heard of it. That’s a shame, because this “Little Switzerland” – as it has come to be known – offers a wealth of things to see and do – and one needn’t cross the Atlantic to get there. The town features its very own “first” plus a bona-fide mystery that’s sure to stand your hair on end. But that’s getting ahead of the story.

A town rises

Founded in 1815 as the village of Coalville (not too surprising given its proximity to a major anthracite coal seam) the town’s name eventually evolved into Mauch Chunk (a Native-American word meaning Bear Mountain). This new settlement, surrounded by lofty mountains, drew life from the seasonal transport of anthracite coal along the Lehigh Canal, and later via railroads.

In 1834, former Connecticut carpenter Asa Packer rose to prominence in the region. Using venture capital, Packer parlayed his assets into a sizeable share of the coal market. So sizeable, in fact, that by 1850 he had become the wealthiest man in Mauch Chunk. In 1861, this master-of-all-he-surveyed built a magnificent Italianate mansion on a bluff overlooking the town. The house stands to this very day.

In 1954, Mauch Chunk found itself in economic decline. Looking to bolster its faltering economy, the town fathers struck a deal with the widow of famed 1912 Olympic Decathlon Champion Jim Thorpe (1888- 1953) who spent his teen years in Carlisle, Pa.. In order to promote tourism, they would reinter Thorpe, then buried in Oklahoma, in a fitting memorial site in return for her permission to name the town after him. She agreed and the name change took effect.

The gambit worked. Today, the village of Jim Thorpe stands transformed. From its restored Victorian shops and restaurants, to the myriad outdoor activities that act as an additional lure, the town has become a great American success story. Let’s check it out.

Victoriana in all its glory

The thing about Jim Thorpe that strikes most people is its supremely quaint look. If a visitor arrives via Route 209, they will first see the town from high above. The word “dramatic” falls short in describing their first view of this Euro-styled village. As one moves closer, they’ll notice that Jim Thorpe is one of the best preserved slices of Victoriana left in this region. From a wealth of pretty boutiques and shops (including a throwback 5&10-cent store replete with original wooden floors) to great restaurants and inns that cater to one’s every need, this town’s a genuine keeper. But there’s a lot more to do here than shop and eat. Trust me.

Photo courtesy Anthony J. Machcinski



Outdoor central

At the center of town, visitors will find a circa 1888 train station that features scenic excursions. It’s the perfect starting point to get a feel for the town and the coal concerns that once reigned supreme in the area. Glen Onoko Gorge is situated just north of town. It contains hiking trails that lead to 75-foottall Onoko Falls, as well as a multitude of scenic overlooks. The Lehigh Gorge trail also runs through here. Bicyclists will delight in its relative flatness as they follow it north toward White Haven, Pa., some 25 miles away. If that seems too tame, Jim Thorpe is noted for some of the wildest and woolliest single-track mountain bike trails in the east. Bicycle shops located in town can hook visitors up with maps of these mountainous trails as well as rentals. The Lehigh River cuts a swath directly through town. At certain times during the year, an upstream dam releases water. When this occurs, there is nothing quite as exhilarating as shooting the whitewater. A number of commercial rafting enterprises are located in and around town to help visitors get “frothy.”

Mansions and murder

The 18-room Asa Packer Mansion and Museum is open to the public for guided tours. Visitors can step back into the past to learn everything about this unique man, while catching a great view of the town located below it. The Harry Packer mansion was built in 1874 for Asa’s son. It now functions as a bed-and-breakfast and features “murder mystery” weekends. It’s located beside the Asa Packer mansion and, rather appropriately, just below a cemetery.

The world’s greatest athlete

A visit to Jim Thorpe, Pa., should start with a visit to the Jim Thorpe memorial. The great decathlete’s final resting place is located on Route 93 just across the Lehigh River from the town proper. Contemplative boards tell Thorpe’s unique story and show how immensely talented he was.

America’s first roller coaster

In order to get coal out of the mountains and into canal boats, a unique 18-mile railway known as the Switchback Gravity Railroad was constructed in the mountains above town. Two inclined planes working on steam power raised the loaded cars where necessary, and gravity took over from there. After the route was abandoned in 1873, the coal cars were modified to carry passengers. One can only imagine how scary it must have been to ride this original “thrill ride” down the mountain at speeds of over 60-mph! In its day, the attraction was said to be second only to Niagara Falls in popularity. It is considered to be America’s very first roller coaster.

A ghostly tale

Jim Thorpe features tours of a very spooky place called the Old Jail Museum. During a 19th century labor uprising against local mine owners, a clandestine group known as the “Molly McGuires” allegedly struck back against their oppressors. They were blamed for everything from sabotage to murder. A number of the “Mollies” were tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. Half of the executions took place at the Old Jail. Now here’s where things get interesting. Charged with murder, prisoner Alexander Campbell was held in cell # 17 while awaiting his execution. He, above all others professed his innocence from the start. Just before Campbell went to the gallows, he said, “I am innocent, I was nowhere near the scene of the crime.” He then slapped his grimy hand against the cell wall and said, “There is proof of my words. That mark of mine will never be wiped out. It will remain forever to shame the county for hanging an innocent man.” Despite repeated scrubbings and re-plastering, the mark remains to this day.

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