Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

Jim Thorpe is an interesting small town with an interesting history in Pennsylvania's anthracite (coal) region. Jim Thorpe was named Mauch Chunk until 1953. It was a major transhipment point for coal from area mines to coastal cities via the Susquehanna River canal during the 19th century. The town prospered from the mid to late 1800s. It was during this time that most of the buildings in the central business district were built. The central business district of Jim Thorpe was built in a deep ravine that leads from the surrounding mountains down into the Susquehanna river. The more than 200 foot high sides of this ravine are too step to build on. As a consequence, almost all of the buildings in central Jim Thorpe are strung along a single street as it winds up the ravine away from the river. Beyond the main commercial area, densely packed homes line this street (Broadway) as it twists further up into the hills. This geographic constriction has given Jim Thorpe a unique, densely packed appearance. There is a slightly less dense residential neighborhood on a plateau North of Broadway. The former town of East Mauch Chunk on the opposite side of the Susquehanna is similarly situated high above the river.

Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

Mauch Chunk developed a thriving tourism industry in the late 1800s when a rail line built in 1827 and previously used to transport coal (The Mauch Chunk Gravity Railroad) was reproposed as a passenger amusement ride. Trains descended 900 feet over 9 miles to the river powered by gravity making this an early sort of roller coaster. Anthracite (coal) mining declined in the region after the turn of the century. Most of the towns in the region suffered population loss and economic decline from the 1920s until very recently. The gravity railroad shut down in 1933 and coal shipments through Mauch Chunk dwindled to almost nothing leaving Mauch Chunk with a severely depressed economy and shrinking population. In 1953, in a desperate attempt to attract tourists, the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk made a deal with the recently widowed third wife of the then famous athlete Jim Thorpe to have his body buried in what was then the outer edge of East Mauch Chunk. A memorial was built to the athlete and the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chuck combined- renaming themselves Jim Thorpe. Jim Thorpe, an Oklahoma native, had reportedly never been to Mauch Chunk and had no connections to the town. The rest of Jim Thorpe's family was not consulted about the burial (he died in California and his body was shipped to Pennsylvania).

Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

The heirs of Jim Thorpe have since sued to have his remains exhumed and moved to Oklahoma. I don't think that the Jim Thorpe body snatching gambit did much to help the flagging economy of the town. Jim Thorpe (town) continued to decline economically and lose population for the next 30 years. It's an interesting example of how desperate people confuse athletic prowess with the supernatural ability to rescue failing economies. I would site this as an early, extreme case of the same phenomena that causes cities today to spend vast amounts of money building stadiums for professional sports teams the hope of economic benefit.

Jim Thorpe's unique, historic, built environment and beautiful natural setting have been the key to it's recent turn-around. Tourist traffic began to pick up in the 1980s and 90s and now sustains the town. People are attracted Jim Thorpe's Victorian business district which has survived mostly intact and to it's picturesque setting. Broadway today is lined with boutique shops and restaurants and the large pay parking lot along the river is often full with the cars of visiting day trippers. I don't mean to disrespect the memory or athletic greatness of Jim Thorpe. I do think that the history of the town Jim Thorpe illustrates a point. Hero worship of professional athletes does very little to save desperately depressed towns and cities. Addressing practical issues such as flood control (Mauch Chunk Lake) and access (large parking area by the river) along with preservation can in fact save towns that have lost substantial elements of their economies.

 

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