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The Town of Jim Thorpe

Set into a deep gorge beside a wild river like a quaint village in central Europe, Jim Thorpe thrived as a coal shipping center during the Victorian Era. Rich coal and railroad barons prospered here between the 1820s until the early 1900s, building fine homes and a flourishing commercial district.

Today, the town lives as a tourist destination. Bikers and skiers cross trails through the mountains. Fishermen and hunters seek game in the rivers, glens and forests. Kayakers and white water rafters plunge down rapids on the Lehigh. Afterwards, those visitors join others in town restaurants, shops, and accommodations.

Many visitors admire and photograph the Victorian architecture. They wonder how Jim Thorpe became such a time-capsule treasure chest of antique building styles. Visitors ask locals how was it possible that Jim Thorpe survived into the 21st Century as an intact Victorian town? It’s been compared to the mythical Scottish village of Brigadoon which awakened only one day every hundred years.

townhistory2Like Brigadoon, Jim Thorpe went to sleep almost a hundred years ago after the coal boom years. When the coal industry declined, wealth left town and no one had money to replace the old buildings. For most of the 20th Century, the townhouses and commercial buildings sat neglected, but unmolested. Local residents kept up as much as possible, dreaming of revival. I Then, starting in the 1980s, the outside world “discovered” Jim Thorpe.

Originally, the town’s name was Mauch Chunk, a Native American term meaning “sleeping bear mountain” for the slope across the Lehigh River. Out of this wilderness a Quaker industrialist, Josiah White, established a corporation and created a town here in 1818 to mine and transport anthracite coal from this region to Philadelphia and New York where America’s Industrial Revolution had just begun. First a canal, then railroads carried coal to fuel American factories, locomotives, ships, and homes for the next one hundred years.

Young people streamed into the townhistory3mountain town of Mauch Chunk to claim a piece of prosperity. Thousands came for industrial labor in mines, foundries, canal boats, and railroads. The ambitious, the clever, and the skilled rose to power and wealth. As Mauch Chunk competed against other industrial regions, individual captains of industry competed against fellow citizens of the town for displays of wealth, especially in home construction.

Much criticism is leveled against Victorian capitalists, however, they did develop much wealth for society in general and their communities in particular, raising millions out of poverty to the middle class. The premier example of an old Mauch Chunk coal and railroad baron would be Asa Packer who arrived as a humble carpenter to assemble coal barges. Packer garnered a vertical empire from mines through transportation systems by exploiting nature and human beings. Yet, he also believed in the “gospel of wealth”, a faith shared among Victorian industrialists, to use his talents and money to help others in improve themselves. He served the public in the U.S. Congress and as a judge and established Lehigh University as a tuition-free engineering college.townhistory4

Packer also built the finest example of Victorian architecture, the Asa Packer Mansion, Jim Thorpe’s crown jewel, sited on Front Hill overlooking the baron’s industrial investments.

Other capitalists followed the Packer example. A town legend says that once a dozen millionaires lived here, the greatest concentration of wealth in America. Following the Civil War they competed to build extravagant townhouses and grant gifts of public institutions such as the Dimmick Library and the Mauch Chunk Opera House.

Words cannot describe the experience of walking through this intense assembly of Victorian homes and institutional buildings, but this documentary film comes close to the reality. Experience the DVD for yourself.