a tale of two cities—in one
Tucked away in the picturesque Pocono Mountains of Eastern Pennsylvania is the quaint and historic town of Jim Thorpe. There you can step back in time, escaping from your present turmoil while indulging in a slower pace of life and savoring old-fashioned treats from the past.
We visited Jim Thorpe in August and were instantly attracted to its charm. Almost hidden in the scenic valley of the Lehigh River Gorge, Jim Thorpe combines the ambiance of a Swiss hamlet with the character of a Victorian village. Colorful houses, cozy cafes, and whimsical shops line its narrow streets.
A carillon chimes peaceful melodies in the quiet of the afternoon, serenading residents in rocking chairs on their front porches. And at nighttime, trees along the main street are lit up with Christmas lights, even in the middle of summer.
We stayed at the Inn at Jim Thorpe, an elegant red-brick structure reminiscent of the French Quarter with a second-story balcony which has an ornate, wrought-iron railing and a lazy ceiling fan. I easily pictured Blanche DuBois from “A Streetcar Named Desire” leaning languidly over the railing while sipping lemonade through a straw on a hot summer night in New Orleans.
Founded in 1815, the town was originally called Mauch Chunk, which means “Mountain of Sleeping Bear” in the language of the Lenape tribe. Under its former name, the town was a thriving center for the coal industry until it suffered an economic decline in the 1920’s with the collapse of the coal mines.
In 1954, Mauch Chunk sought to reinvent itself by changing its name to Jim Thorpe, after the legendary Olympic athlete, in deference to his widow, who asked if he could be buried there and a monument built in his honor. The town erected two statues of Jim by his gravesite and transformed itself into a tourist destination.
Instead of coal mining, Jim Thorpe now boasts activities like recreation—hiking, biking, and kayaking in the Pocono Mountains; cultural performances at the Mauch Chunk Opera House (Loretta Lynn and Charlie Daniels, among other stars, have performed there); and historical attractions like the Mauch Chunk Museum and the Old Jail.
We took a fascinating tour of the Old Jail and saw the dark, eerie prison cells, the gloomy, dank dungeon and the menacing gallows where several of the Molly Maguires—members of a secret society of Irish immigrant coal miners—were hanged for murder in 1877. Scary—sent shivers up my spine!
On a more pleasant note, we enjoyed ice cream at the Rainbow’s End parlor, browsed around the bric-a-brac at the Mauch Chunk Emporium, and took a scenic ride on the Lehigh Gorge Railroad, drinking in views of the Lehigh River and the mountain greenery. We also walked on a woodsy trail in the Lehigh Gorge State Park.
During a visit to the Mauch Chunk Museum, the friendly curator took the time to explain the exhibits and to chat with us about the history of the town and Jim Thorpe’s life. Originally from the Golden State of California, she moved east to be closer to her son and grandchildren in New York State, and chose Jim Thorpe after researching the prettiest towns in Pennsylvania.
Jim Thorpe is indeed a pretty town, but it has not forgotten its old roots as Mauch Chunk. It embraces its newfound charms while it respects its industrial past, weaving them into a harmonious tale of two cities living together as one.
If you want a weekend getaway to this historic town, check out www.jimthorpe.org.