By Cecil Scaglione
Jim Thorpe PA— Rolling along the country roads in this northeastern pocket of the Keystone State is akin to central Italy, where there’s a town with its own version of history crowns every hill.
Jim Thorpe is no exception. The all-round all-America athlete after whom this town is named was not born here, did not attend school here, and there is no evidence he ever set foot or even drove past here.
Yet this Gateway to the Poconos, which proclaims to be one of the nation’s prettiest towns, owes its survival to the Oklahoma-born Olympic champion who, when the King of Sweden handed him his pentathlon and decathlon medals at the 1912 Stockholm Games and proclaimed him “the greatest athlete in the world,” said “Thanks, King.”
The settlement was known as Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk until the 1950s.
The community had blazed through its heyday of coal and railroad expansion and was existing on those fumes of its fame when Thorpe died in 1953. His widow, disappointed and disgusted when Oklahoma movers and shakers refused to establish a memorial to their renowned native son, stole his remains from the undertaker and began shopping around for a place that would welcome them.
Mauch Chunk leaders heard of her efforts and, desperate for new lifeblood, agreed to build a memorial for her late husband and rename their town after him. They even had some soil dug up from the Stockholm Olympic Stadium and used it to form a small mound below his monument.
Visitors who pop into this forest-girdled community mid-way between Wilkes Barre and Allentown and wish to visit the man’s memorial head through downtown across the
Lehigh River and continue about a mile to a small park at the north end of town.
If they park in the lot beside the train station that debouched passengers into the heart of the commercial zone, they’re more likely to see Molly Maguires Pub and Steakhouse, a benign reminder that this is where four members of the infamous group involved in a bloody mining war were found guilty of murder and hanged in the mid-1870s.
A more-comfortable memory of the community’s salad days is housed the Asa Packer Mansion perched high on a hill overlooking the town. Packer started out as an apprentice carpenter who opened a store in Mauch Chunk while operating a boat yard that made vessels for transporting coal along the Lehigh Canal. This led him into the mining industry and, eventually, railroading.
His Lehigh Valley Railroad eventually reached out to the Jersey shore. When he died in 1879, his estate was valued at $54 million.
The comfort of his life as an industrialist, congressman, candidate for governor, presidential nominee, and judge are on view for tours of the Victorian building that peers over the town to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church straddling a hill on the other side of town. Packer was instrumental in having this Gothic landmark built. Among its eye-catching features are two vibrant Tiffany windows. Today, the church has just a bit more than 30 members.
While coal and railroading are no longer major activities in and around the community, there is no lack of things to do. You can still take train rides through the Lehigh Gorge for the fun of it but kayaking and white-water rafting have replaced coal-barging on the Lehigh River.
You can pop into the Old Jail Museum and view the gallows where the Molly Maguires were executed.
Hiking and biking trails wind all around the surrounding hills and valleys and, for those with a yen for more, there are zip-lining sites scattered throughout the region. In winter, add skiing, snowboarding, and snowmobiling to your list of can-dos.
This section of northeastern Pennsylvania is peppered with small museums, nature centers and wineries. And should you feel fatigued and ready for food, there’ll be a saloon or pub close at hand to feast on a local Pennsylvania specialty.
Within an hour’s drive west are a couple of attractions that can keep you entertained for a few more hours.
Tucked into a sylvan saucer is Knoebels Amusement Resort where every member of the family will find some diversion ranging from camping to carnival rides to homemade ice cream. In nearby Pottsville is the Yuengling Brewery, the oldest continuously operating brewery in
America, that provides refreshing tours year round.
About Cecil Scaglione: Cecil is a former San Diego Union-Tribune writer and for a number of years has been a world traveler and writer and currently a syndicated columnist.