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Local history 'unplugged'

  • VINNY VELLA/TIMES NEWS Lehighton Area Middle School teacher Ron Rabenold, center, explains the history of the Carbon County Courthouse to a group of fifth grade students during a Historical Walking Tour.
    VINNY VELLA/TIMES NEWS Lehighton Area Middle School teacher Ron Rabenold, center, explains the history of the Carbon County Courthouse to a group of fifth grade students during a Historical Walking Tour.
Published June 02. 2010 05:00PM

Ron Rabenold bemoans technology.

He cites it as one of the many obstacles facing today's youth, and actively encourages the students in his fifth grade history class at Lehighton Area Middle School to go out and explore the great outdoors.

"Drag yourself away from cyberworld and explore," he said to a group of students recently. "Hunt or fish or hike. Just get some sun on your faces."

Even more important to Rabenold is getting his students interested in local history, something he thinks goes hand in hand with outdoor activity.

"Growing up, I was fortunate to have parents who let me go out and explore, and I discovered many relics from the past" Rabenold said. "To this day, my love for the outdoors is matched by my love for history. It's a nice mix."

Every year, Rabenold takes his students on a field trip to Jim Thorpe's more famous historical attractions, namely the Old Jail Museum and the Asa Packer Mansion. Yet, he felt that one yearly tour didn't provide enough background for his students, and sought a way to add more information.

He recently found a solution in his Historical Walking Tours, guided sojourns through some of Jim Thorpe's oft-ignored historical landmarks.

With approximately 15 LAMS students in tow, Rabenold and fellow history buff Keith Bellhorn, both members of the Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center's board of directors, began their most recent trip through time at the small park in front of the Jersey Central Station, the veritable heart of Jim Thorpe's tourism district. Rabenold kicked off the day's activities by relating the historical significance of the area, specifically the crucial role it played in fueling the nation's Industrial Revolution.

"Why did all these people come to the area? Why did so much money come into the area?" Rabenold asked the students. "One answer: coal."

"Millions of tons of the coal that fueled not only our area, but the entire nation came out of our backyard. Hopefully today we can see why our past is so important, so that we can make our future brighter."

As the group left the park and began crawling up Packer Hill Road, Rabenold provided lessons on Jim Thorpe's early history, discussing the Lenape Indians that settled there and the reason for the town's original namesake, Mauch Chunk. In the Lenape dialect, "mauch chunk" means "sleeping bear," which is what the Indians believed the mountains near the town resembled.

Once the group's path crossed with the mansions of Asa Packer and his son Harry, the lesson progressed, switching to the rich legacy of the Packer family, particularly the role some of its members played in the shaping of modern-day Jim Thorpe. On the steps of Harry Packer's mansion, Bellhorn took over the lecture, relating the story of his great-grandfather, who first came to the area to serve as Harry Packer's live-in chef after the heir discovered him in a London hotel.

The tour, however, did not begin in earnest until the group reached the top of the hill and began exploring an unassuming forest path that was once a crucial piece of the area's most famous attraction: the Switchback Railroad.

While the group picked its way through the dirt walkway, Rabenold revealed the former majesty of the Switchback, through its early days as an innovation in coal transportation technology to its later role as the world's first roller-coaster.

"People from all over the country came to ride the Switchback," he said. "Even President Grant was rumored to be one of its passengers."

Thanks to a picture taken from Bellhorn's personal collection, the group was able to compare the ground they were standing on to its appearance in the early 20th century, largely barren thanks to coal gas emissions. Bellhorn commented that the area's modern, verdant appearance was closer to "the way it was when the pioneers found it."

Further down its length, the path revealed the secluded private cemeteries that house the remains of former Jim Thorpe elites, including several members of the Packer and Blakeslee families. These entombments were eerily pristine, the result of privately funded annual maintenance, and served as the perfect backdrop for the day's extended lecture.

At the end of the path, the group began its descent back into Jim Thorpe via Hill Road, where Rabenold revealed the history of the Mauch Chunk Opera House as an early town hall built by the collective efforts of the upper class.

The tour finally ended at the Mauch Chunk Museum & Cultural Center, where Michael Nonnemacher demonstrated how the Switchback Railroad worked in its heyday with the help of Walter Niehoff's famous scale model.

"I thought it was a pretty cool experience," Mark Kudela, of Lehighton, said. He and his daughter Kayla thoroughly enjoyed the tour, particularly the museum.

"I'm always interested in learning about the area, and I think that it's important to pass along this knowledge to the kids."

It would seem that Rabenold shares this sentiment.

"I'm hoping all these kids come out here again and bring more people," he said. "This area was a major destination point for people from all over the country years ago, and I think that we don't always appreciate that history."

Plus, whatever is found on the tour is bound to be more exciting than anything encountered indoors.

For more information on the Historical Walking Tours, contact Rabenold at (610) 428-6651 or visit his blog, Cultured Carbon County, at

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