(EDITOR'S NOTE: Writer Bud Cole lives in the Lehigh Valley. The following was written for our weekly publications serving the Lehigh Valley area, including the East Penn Press).
By BUD COLE
Special to the TIMES NEWS
My wife Bev and I have been driving through Jim Thorpe for many years on our way to and from other destinations, but we had not placed the quaint borough on our "places to visit" list until recently. What we found was a wonderful place for a day visit or longer and it is within an hour's drive from anywhere in the Lehigh Valley.
Mauch Chunk, the former name for the village of Jim Thorpe, received its name from the Lenni Lenape Native Americans who originally occupied the area along the Lehigh River. Mauch Chunk meant Bear Mountain in their language and it referred to a local mountain resembling a sleeping bear.
Josiah White, one of the founders of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (LCNC), founded the village of Mauch Chunk in 1818. Its location at the Lehigh River influenced its importance as a canal and railroad town most noted for shipping anthracite coal. It is the county seat of Carbon County.
The Mauch Chunk Gravity Railroad was built in 1827 by the LCNC to carry coal. This 8.7-mile downhill gravity-run track transported coal from Summit Hill area coal mines to Mauch Chunk. The Gravity Railroad not only stimulated commerce in the region; it was also very important to the Industrial Revolution.
By the 1850's, the Gravity Railroad, as it was called, had stopped transporting coal and had become an amusement ride for thrill- seekers. The fee was 50 cents, which translates to about $12 a ride in today's economy. The round-trip ride, covering more than 16 miles, drew visitors from as far as Philadelphia and New York City. Today, the remaining railroad bed is used for hiking and biking.
The 2000 census lists Jim Thorpe's population as 4,804, not much higher than Mauch Chunk's population of 4,020 in 1900. Following the death of Oklahoma Native American athlete Jim Thorpe in 1953, the Boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk bought Thorpe's remains from his third wife. The boroughs merged together to form the borough of Jim Thorpe.
The goal was to restore interest in the two boroughs, thus bolstering business and attracting tourists following the loss of the major coal industries to the post-industrial economy. A monument and small park mark his remains. Thorpe attended the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, Carlisle, and went on to Olympic fame and professional sports.
Jim Thorpe has been called the "Switzerland of America" because of its mountainous setting, picturesque scenery and architecture. There are many styles of architecture in the town, including Federalist, Greek Revival, Queen Anne, Richardsonian Romanesque, Romanesque Revival and Second Empire. Much of the original architecture remained in good condition because it was covered by aluminum and vinyl siding. The town is also known as the "Gateway to the Poconos."
Asa Packer, an American businessman, pioneer railroad tycoon, philanthropist and founder of Lehigh University, built a three-story mansion in Mauch Chunk in 1861. The mansion, built over a cast-iron frame, has a distinctive red-ribbed tin roof and centrally-located cupola. The Queen Anne style mansion cost $14,000 to build. The restored adjacent Harry Packer Mansion was used as a model for the Haunted Mansion in Disney World. It hosts meals, lodging and ghost dinners.
The borough also has many charming mom and pop shops. Bart Springer, President of the Jim Thorpe Chamber of Commerce and a local businessman, said, "We have many little shops, which will take care of any visitor's 'retail therapy.' Where else can you buy a cappuccino on the street and then rent a mountain bike next door?"
Jim Thorpe is listed in the top 50 action towns in the U.S. by National Geographic Traveler Magazine and the area is rated the fourth best mountain biking area in the U.S., first in paintball, and the nearby Lehigh River boasts Class III rapids for rafting and kayaking," according to Springer.
Springer owns the Albright Restaurant on Main Street. It is the oldest Absinthe House in the United States outside of New Orleans. Absinthe, an emerald green liqueur, drips a drop at a time from one of four fountain decanter faucets onto a sugar cube held in place by a special spoon resting atop an Absinthe goblet.
This is just one of the little-known special treats found in Jim Thorpe. Springer and his wife, Meriel, also own the Hillcrest Inn, a British style B&B on a nearby hill overlooking the Lehigh River.
Another secret foodie hideaway is "Flow," a restaurant occupying a building that was home to a number of manufacturers including toys. It was remodeled into a casual dining facility by Joan Morycin and Victor Stabin in 2004. Visitors are able to watch the stream flow beneath the building, visit Stabin's art gallery and sit in the outdoor dining area bordered by a rock outcrop.
Other Jim Thorpe area points of interest include the Mauch Chunk Opera House, Old Jail, Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railroad, Bear Mountain Butterfly Sanctuary, Flagstaff Lookout and the weekend farmers' market.