Jim Thorpe – Rails, Trails, and Jails

The town of Jim Thorpe, in Carbon County, is a living testament to the ability of Pennsylvanians to adapt creatively to change and adversity. Set squarely in the midst of the mountains that contained the rich anthracite fields in the eastern part of the state, Jim Thorpe began life as two towns, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk. The area rose to prominence as the coal fields were exploited in the 1800’s and by the middle of the century, Mauch Chunk was considered to be the wealthiest town in the country. That wealth grew as profits from coal were supplemented with revenues from transportation from the Lehigh Canal and railroads feeding the steel mills and foundries of the region.


While some portions of the population enjoyed great success, others endured great hardship.  The coal fields were harsh places to live and work with long hours, back breaking and dangerous working conditions, pittance pay, and constant health problems being the norm. Add to that the reality that the mine owners were of English and Welsh Protestant descent while the miners were largely Irish Catholics, and it is easy to see that this was a situation ripe for social discord. Throughout the middle of the 19th century attempts to unionize were thwarted and both the miners and the mine owners solidified their opposing positions with increasing violence and force.

The architecture of Jim Thorpe harkens back to the 1800's - Photographs by Henry Rowan
The architecture of Jim Thorpe harkens back to the 1800’s – Photographs by Henry Rowan

It was from this background that the story of the Molly Maguires emerges in Jim Thorpe’s history. Considered to be a secret society that originated in Ireland, the Molly Maguires were reputed to have been responsible for the sabotage of the mines and violence against the owners’ operatives. Unionization was finally successful in 1870, but the situation continued to deteriorate as the financial crisis known as the Panic of 1873 emboldened the mine owners to demand a 20% pay cut. An extensive strike hit the fields in 1875 and the punitive efforts of the mine owners led not only to the destruction of the union, but also to the arrest and execution of 10 alleged members of the Mollies, four of whom were hung in Carbon County Jail in Mauch Chunk.

One of the better "suites" at the Carbon County Jail
One of the better “suites” at the Carbon County Jail

OK, so why is this bit of history (and it is a short bit as this is an extremely complex and interesting piece of Pennsylvania’s annals) appropriate here? Because it provides the backdrop for one of the more fascinating places to visit while in Jim Thorpe, that being the jail where some of the Mollies met their end. Here you will find the handprint of one, Alexander Campbell, who left a muddy print on the wall of his cell as a sign of his innocence. As he was marched to the gallows, he said, “There is proof of my words. That mark of mine will never be wiped out. It will remain forever to shame the county for hanging an innocent man.” And it has. Despite efforts to rid the wall of the print by cleaning, painting, and even knocking the old wall down and replacing it, the handprint has always returned to Cell 17.

The handprint isn’t the only supernatural element of the jail, or for that matter, Jim Thorpe. The jail is reputed to be haunted and a tour of the place will leave you wondering if it might be true. Other buildings in town are also alleged inhabited by spirits, but the one ghost that is evident to all is the past.  Jim Thorpe is a quintessential example of an American small town built from and then lost to the march of industrialization. From being America’s wealthiest town, Mauch Chunk saw itself decline steadily as first the canal, and then the coal, and then the railroads, lost their economic power. Major industries were supplanted with smaller industrial enterprises, but even those faded as the world changed after WWII. Like many other small towns throughout the country, it seemed that Mauch Chunk was in a death spiral.

Bright colors and lovely parks abound in the Jim Thorpe of today.

The fact that the community pulled out of the spiral and has reinvented itself is one of the reasons that we have included it here. The people of Jim Thorpe deserve a lot of credit for innovative thinking and bold action. In an effort to make their town a more interesting place for tourists, the town fathers and the widow of Jim Thorpe, the revered, but destitute, Native American athlete, reached a rather bizarre agreement. She wanted, but could not afford, a proper memorial to her husband and the towns wanted something that would put them back on the map. In a move that accomplished both purposes, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged and were renamed in Thorpe’s  honor and a fitting monument was built to house his remains. Though Jim never entered the town while alive, his memory does live on and the story of his accomplishments as perhaps the greatest athlete of all-time is told at his easily accessible memorial, which is on Route 903 about 1.5 miles from its intersection with US 209.

As befits any Treasure of Pennsylvania, there is a lot to do in and around Jim Thorpe. The beautiful Lehigh Gorge State Park is a major destination with excellent rafting and fishing plus a great rails-to-trail route for walking and biking.  Bicyclists may also want to take a run down the old switchback railroad trail, which apparently is a very nice nine mile downhill route, meaning that you might want to consider using an available shuttle service to get to the top or you should be prepared for a hefty peddle back up. (The Mauch Chunk Switchback Railroad was once America’s second most popular tourist attraction behind Niagara Falls. Originally designed to move coal, this gravity railroad became the forefather for the modern roller coaster when it was converted over to passenger usage. Though some likened it more to a runaway train, the switchback railroad entertained riders from 1873-1932.)

An easy trail follows the tracks along side the Lehigh River
An easy trail follows the tracks along side the Lehigh River

Speaking of railroads, Jim Thorpe offers one of the best tourist lines in the country. The Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway is a primarily diesel-powered line that features passenger cars from the 1920’s. The main run is a 16 mile jaunt through the mountains that surround Jim Thorpe (which inspired a marketing wizard of old to nickname the town “The Switzerland of America,”) and along the Lehigh River. Special runs are available at various times of the year and it is best to consult their website for dates and times.

Well maintained passenger cars transport you to a different era.

Once you hop off the train you should take the time to just stroll around town and take in the old opera house as well as the Asa Packer mansion at the top of the hill. This grand 1861 residence was the home to one of the leading industrialists of the era and the founder of Lehigh University. On a less grand scale you will find unique stores and fun places to shop that are filled with wares that you don’t have to be a railroad magnate or coal baron to be able to afford.

Americana at its finest!
Americana at its finest!

As a special note: We have always found the residents of Jim Thorpe to be uncommonly friendly and helpful. As nice as the area is, I would like to mention that the people of the town are equally as deserving of being recognized as Treasures of Pennsylvania.

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