History of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

From its beginning, the town of Jim Thorpe has had a curious history, which continues to this day. Founded as a transportation hub for the booming coal industry of the early 1800's, the town was initially planned to be farther up the Lehigh Valley, where the Nesquehoning creek comes gently into the river. However, due to a land dispute, the town's founders decided to use the steep valley between two close mountains as the site for their company town. (The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company is the resulting company from these early ventures.)

From a ridge above the townsite, the mountain across the river resembles a sleeping bear, so the town below was christened Mauch Chunk, which means 'sleeping bear' in the language of the native Americans who inhabited the area. Mauch Chunk prospered as the Civil War and Industrial Revolution of the 1800's demanded more and more fuel. Coal powered much of Americas industry during this time, so the Lehigh canal and (later) railroads were kept busy transporting the 'black diamonds' to industrial towns like Bethlehem, New York City and Philadelphia.
To get the mined coal from the open-pit area of Summit Hill down to the river at Mauch Chunk, engineers devised an ingenious Gravity Railroad that coasted tons of coal over 8 miles down a slight grade to a point above town where it was chuted into barges or railcars. Known as the Switchback (for the old mule trail that it replaced), this was the world's first working railroad and enabled Mauch Chunk to get more coal onto river or rail quicker than other transportation systems. This translated into more revenue, and more investment, which demanded more workers. The mine work itself was filthy, low-paying and treacherous.
Many a man was carried out of the mines after injury or death, and many were not carried out - they're still down there… Conditions were so bad at some places that miners banded together in Strikes for improved conditions, and eventually Unions were formed to fight for the working man. Most famous of these was the group nicknamed the "Molly Maguires," of which seventeen were hung for various crimes. Five hung at the county jail in Mauch Chunk, and the legend of the handprint of innocence lives to this day. Unions tried to better the working environment, but the mine owners had more power, and conditions were never good. Men risked their lives daily for miniscule wages, and the ones who weren't physically harmed were poisoning themselves slowly by breathing coal dust. Black Lung disease was a major cause of death among miners. Still, immigrants and city-folk came to the area in search of work, and there were always the sons of miners, most who never had a chance to get away.

With the influx of people, Mauch Chunk soon stretched far up the narrow valley astride its namesake creek, jumped up onto the point of Mt. Pisgah above the downtown, and even spread across the river onto a more hospitable site (the East Side of town). Prosperity came very quickly, and Mauch Chunk was home to over 5,000 people. Although mining was a large part of the commerce and culture of the general area, Mauch Chunk itself was mainly a transportation town, and so was a bit ahead of other towns in economics, lifestyle, and culture. There was so much money in town from moving coal to market that by the late 1800's it was one of the richest towns in America. As a matter of fact, at one time 13 millionaires called Mauch Chunk home, quite a record for a town of only 5,000. Grand architecture was a by-product of the wealth, as company managers outdid each other with the design and construction of their homes. Foremost of the homes are the Packer Mansions, both built by Asa Packer who founded the Lehigh Valley Railroad that transported a large percentage of the area's coal output. Below these mansions, both literally and figuratively, are the homes of millionaire's row, located on Broadway. Along with the private buildings, the wealth of the LC&N and LVRR contributed to some great public buildings that include the county courthouse, YMCA, Library, Opera House, and train station, as well as churches and school buildings throughout town. Even the homes of many workers had unique styling and charm - just look at Race Street. Townspeople enjoyed a style of life that most in the region never experienced, but just like everything in America, things changed in Mauch Chunk.

In the late 1800's, as steam locomotives made it even easier to get coal from mines to market, the Switchback Railroad became obsolete… until people found out it was FUN! What was the first working railroad then became the world's first Roller Coaster, and people came from far and wide to ride the thrilling 16-mile, 45 minute figure-8 shaped track. At the same time, the town started to reap the benefits of its unique architecture and natural surroundings, as people visited to experience what was dubbed the 'Switzerland of America.' With the beauty of Glen Onoko's waterfalls and Flagstaff Park's views within a short distance, the river and mountains all around, a great thrill-ride, and wonderful town, Mauch Chunk was an East-Coast mecca for tourists. In fact, around the turn of the 20th century, this town was the second most popular tourist destination in America (Niagara Falls was first). Meanwhile, coal was still being hauled by the LC&N and LVRR, but the changes had begun.

Between 1900 and 1950, many changes in American society were taking place, and sometimes at a rapid pace. The Industrial Revolution culminated in the production lines of Henry Ford and soon America had wheels. Good for people, bad for Mauch Chunk. Cars needed gas… gas demands oil. As more and more people got cars, less and less relied on steam locomotives that were powered by coal. Then oil refining became more productive and soon factories and many engines were converted to oil or gas power, and less coal was needed. By the time of the Great Depression, coal was falling quickly out of favor as fuel for industry. The mines and railroads carried on, but operations were greatly reduced from their peak of the late-1800's. By the 1950's, coal was definitely out-of-favor, and the area showed the effects of a greatly-depressed economy. Even after other areas had come out of the depression of the 30's, Mauch Chunk could not pull itself up. Having relied solely on coal transportation for so much of its economy, the town was not poised to do anything else. Businesses that once supported the coal industry now moved out of town, buildings were vacant, people were living in poverty. One of the richest towns in America was now struggling to survive. At points during these low times, the town had to demolish many vacant buildings that posed a threat to public safety. Many beautiful homes and commercial buildings were lost. In a now-fortuitous economic dilemma, the town was so poor it could not afford to demolish every building planned, so some of the architecture survived! A few local businesses persevered through the lean times - a fur company operated for many years, and a purse factory opened in the old high school. A few companies moved in and out, and the town foundered on, but again things always change, and another cycle was starting for Mauch Chunk.

In the early-1950's, a group of forward-thinking residents rallied their neighbors to look for some economic stimulus to get the town back on its feet. Though times were hard, the group started a fund, whereby families would contribute a 'Nickel-a-week' until there was enough money to do something for the collective good. A few years into the search, a weird coincidence arose, in which the widow of Native American athletic hero Jim Thorpe was looking for a place to bury her husband. Living a version of the American dream, Jim Thorpe accomplished great things in his life (Olympic gold, Pro Baseball/Football, and more) but ended up dying with little in actual money. Money is what Mauch Chunk had at this point, around $30,000 of nickels! Somehow Mrs. Thorpe got in contact with the townspeople and an agreement was struck - Jim Thorpe would be buried and honored by the town of Mauch Chunk, which would even change its name in recognition of the American hero, who had never even been to the town. In early 1954 he got his own property, a lovely plot of land on the East Side of town that holds a beautiful mausoleum and small plaza with plaques describing Mr. Thorpe's many accomplishments. And the town changed names. Supposedly, this whole venture would be good for tourism, but the town was quite split over the issue. (To this day, some folks call themselves 'Chunkers' to protest the action.)

Although the events of 1954 have had many effects on the town, not much has changed in the economic or industrial status of Jim Thorpe - there are still no major companies in town, and most people have to travel to find work. However, just as in the late-1800's when people came to the 'Switzerland of America' for scenic beauty and thrill-rides, the 1980's were a renaissance for those aspects of town. People from other areas re-discovered the beautiful architecture of downtown, they came back to the mountains to hike and bike and enjoy nature, they came to enjoy the history of the area. The world's first railroad and roller coaster is now a wonderful walking/biking path, and the prosperous Lehigh Valley Railroad is now one of the best rail-trails anywhere in America. Attractions like these have drawn people to the area, and they even started to move here, reversing the trend from the previous six decades, and gradually the town has rebounded. Vacant buildings that were spared the wrecking ball have been remodeled into quaint shops and homes, and the downtown is now a national model for historic revitalization. Artists took to the town early, and now there are almost 20 studios and galleries, most of which can be visited. Tourism is the leading industry, and many businesses offer services to help visitors enjoy all the area has to offer. When you visit Mary's Guesthouse, you will be right in the middle of all this, able to explore and adventure through nature, history and culture - we hope to see you soon!

thanks to The Jim Thorpe Tourism Agency for use of the historic photos above