It was 100 years ago that Jim Thorpe the athlete climbed to the top of the sporting world, establishing himself as an American icon with his gold medal performances at the Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden.
While Americans looked with pride and the world watched in awe at the incredible exploits of the Native American from the Sac and Fox Tribe in Oklahoma Territory, it's intriguing to know that most residents of Mauch Chunk were kept in the dark concerning events unfolding in Sweden at the time. No one knew then, of course, that in four more decades, this fabulous American athlete would have his name affixed to Carbon County's picturesque and historic county seat.
Judging from the lack of coverage in the Mauch Chunk Daily Times, the one chronicle we have of the events of those days in July of 1912, the editor apparently didn't deem Thorpe's performance worthy of his news space. The newspaper ran sports snippets on its front page from around the nation, including some short blurbs about the Stockholm games, but it made no mention of Jim Thorpe during the week of July 7 and 15, when the Carlisle Indian won his medals in the pentathlon and decathlon events.
The Times did, however, devote coverage to a local sporting event – a footrace in Mahanoy City.
"Nat Cartmell carried the colors of the University of Pennsylvania to victory in the 220-year match race with William Martin of Walla Walla, Wash., a student at the University of Pennsylvania, here this after noon," the Times reported on July 23.
While Mauch Chunk residents were oblivious to Thorpe's heroics because of the lack of coverage in its newspaper, other news outlets such as the San Francisco Call heralded his performance.
"His victory in the pentathlon last week and yesterday in the decathlon stamps Jim Thorpe, the Carlisle Indian, as the greatest all around athlete the world has ever seen," the West Coast newspaper stated in its July 16 edition.
Had Mauch Chunk residents traveled a short distance up the road to Lansford and bought a copy of the Lansford Record on July 20, they would have learned about Thorpe's gold medal performances and worldwide acclaim. The Record gave an Olympics overview of how American athletes dominated the medals and overall points standings in Stockholm. It also reported on one of the signature moments of those Games – the famous medal ceremony involving Thorpe and the Swedish king.
"'You sir, are the most wonderful athlete in the world.' It was with those words that King Gustave of Sweden greeted James Thorpe, the American Indian, when the redskin stepped up top receive his prizes at the trophy presentation by the King," the Record reported.
Although use of the word "redskin" would present a problem in today's politically correct society, one must realize that in 1912 Native Indians were legally considered "wards of the state" and not American citizens.
Indian schools like Carlisle, where Thorpe was a student, weren't colleges in the traditional sense of the word, even though the small Cumberland County school played a major college football schedule for a number of years. While they did teach practical skills at Carlisle, the major objective was to fully assimilate Indians into the culture.
A vivid example of this could be seen in Lewis Tewanima, one of Jim Thorpe's Carlisle classmates. Tewanima, a Hopi, was technically serving out a five-year sentence at Carlisle as a prisoner of war when he competed as a long-distance runner in both the 1908 and 1912 Olympics.
There is one recorded connection between Jim Thorpe the man and the county which would see the name of its county seat changed to honor his name in 1954 and then receive his body for a mausoleum completed in 1957 as a final resting place for the famous athlete. Twelve years before his death in 1953, Thorpe visited Palmerton as part of a nationwide lecture tour which saw him appear in a number of schools. His New York booking agency usually had him scheduled for four locations each week.
During his only recorded visit to Carbon County, Thorpe addressed the student body at the S.S. Palmer High School school in the afternoon, then served as the guest of honor at Szukic's Hotel in Aquashicola before returning to the high school auditorium in the evening to address the general public.
The visit was sponsored by the Palmerton Board of Trade and the Palmerton Athletic Dinner Club. While addressing the students, Thorpe shared the stage with members of the Palmerton basketball team, which had won the Lehigh Valley League Championship.
Neither the great Thorpe, or anyone else who heard him speak in Palmerton that day in 1941 could have foreseen that in 13 more years and just a short distance away on Route 209, the small towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, would be merging and taking on a new identity in his honor.