Jim Thorpe is a borough in Carbon County, Pennsylvania, United States. The population was 4,804 at the 2000 census. It is the county seat of Carbon County. The boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged and took on the name of Jim Thorpe following the 1953 death of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe in hopes to attract tourism and other attention to help its economy.
The town has also been referred to as the “Switzerland of America”, as can be seen in an old drawing of the town showcased in a restaurant therein. This may also be the cause of the building next to the Sunrise Diner having “Hotel Switzerland” painted onto its front. The town was so nicknamed due to the picturesque scenery, mountainous location, and architecture. The town was founded by Lehigh Coal Company, and was home to the Mauch Chunk Switchback Gravity Railroad, generally acknowledged as the first roller coaster in the United States.
Mauch Chunk was founded in 1818 by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company and rapidly became a railroad and coal-shipping centre. The population in 1900 was 4020 and in 1910 it was 3952. The city was the location of the trial of the Molly Maguires in 1876, which resulted in the hanging of four whom were found guilty of murder.
The history of the town is inscribed in the architecture that makes up its many 19th century styles. Former resident and architectural historian Hans Egli noted the vast range of architectural styles: Federalist, to Greek Revival, Second Empire, Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne, and Richardsonian Romanesque. Fortunately, most of these architectural examples remain completely intact and were only covered in unimaginative “modern” siding that has since been removed.
Robert Venturi, a renowned Philadelphia-based architect, conducted a little-known planning study in the 1970s that attempted to understand the dynamics of historicism and tourism, notions that have come into their own in contemporary times. While Venturi’s planning study was unique at the time, it has since become a critical factor in Jim Thorpe’s rebound as a functioning and economically stable construct. Jim Thorpe currently benefits from tourism initially spurred on by the celebration of its old architecture and has since then spawned into new industries that are modern creations. Two of these relative newcomers to the Jim Thorpe area are paintball and white water rafting.
In 1827, a mining company in Summit Hill, Pennsylvania constructed a 14-kilometre downhill track, known as a gravity railroad, to deliver coal (and a miner to operate the mine train’s brake) to the Lehigh Canal in Mauch Chunk, PA. This was responsible for opening up the area to commerce. By the 1850s, the “Gravity Road” (as it became known) was providing rides to thrillseekers for 50 cents a ride. This is often designated as the first roller coaster in the United States. The Switchback Gravity Railroad Foundation was formed to study the feasibility of preserving and interpreting the remains of the Switchback Gravity Railroad on top of Mount Pisgah.
Looking for things to do while you’re in Jim Thorpe? Find points of interest on our Jim Thorpe Activities page.
Jim Thorpe is quickly becoming a tourist destination, with many businesses catering to white water rafting, mountain biking, paintball, and hiking. Along with these sports, Jim Thorpe is popular among railroading fans, and is known for its extraordinary architecture.
Jim Thorpe is also home to the Anthracite Triathlon. The Anthracite Triathlon is an Olympic distance triathlon open to both amateur and professional triathletes. The swim portion occurs in Mauch Chunk Lake. The bike course takes riders through the mining towns of Summit Hill, Nesquehoning, Lansford, and Jim Thorpe. The running portion of the course is generally along the former alignment of a historic switchback railroad.
The town is also home to the Asa Packer and Harry Packer Mansions. The former was the founder of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Lehigh University; the latter was the son of Asa. Both mansions sit next to one another on a hill overlooking downtown Jim Thorpe. The Asa Packer Mansion is currently a museum and has been conducting tours since Memorial Day of 1956. The Harry Packer Mansion is now a bed and breakfast.