Monday, October 5, 2015

Jim Thorpe Lives up to its Name

Our hotel on the right during a carriage ride.
(This guy makes $120 per hour, just for the record.)
Last weekend, my wife and I made a two-hour trip into the mountains of Pennsylvania to a little town called Jim Thorpe -- named, of course, after the great Olympic and professional athlete of the early twentieth century. (The history of this is sketchy. Thorpe was from Oklahoma and had never been to the town of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania [as it was first called]; his third wife essentially made a financial deal to help boost the town's tourism by moving his remains there. Not exactly a cozy tale -- the fight for his remains still goes on...)

At any rate, Jim Thorpe is a fairly popular retreat from people in the Jersey/Delaware/Pennsylvania area and my wife and I had never been there. It made for a very nice and relaxing weekend. The real history of the town is a little more interesting than the artificial Jim Thorpe connection.

The hotel balcony at night. 
It was a coal and railroad town on the Lehigh River and Asa Packer, a kind of classic self-made millionaire we Americans all admire, made his fortune there. His fortune became, by all accounts, other people's fortunes, as he was quite the humanitarian, having done great things for charity. He even founded Lehigh University. The guy seems to have been a good egg -- unlike his contemporary, Frank Gowan, the central figure in the controversial Molly Maguires story, who bled his workers dry through a vicious scrip and housing system that left them destitute and that often ended with a knock on a door answered by a wife who would discover her dead husband's remains (perhaps in a bucket) and who would know that meant she had three days to get our of the house or come up with a new husband (or son) to supply to the mines for a worker. One does wonder if Gowan and Packer had dealings and, if so, what was said... (Packer would even go on to be a member of the Pennsylvania house of Representatives; he made a bid for President, as well, in 1869.)

My first impression, on a walk down Broadway, was a bit of disappointment. I pictured something more like a snow-globe town, but Jim Thorpe is a little more of an active place, in which real people live, than a museum piece with snooty rules about sign heights and paint-color limitations. In the end, this became what I liked. Jim Thorpe was real and the more one explored, the more interesting things one uncovered about it, from excellent used book and antique stores (I found a lovely 1950s edition of Cooper's Leatherstocking novels for ten dollars) to good restaurants and interesting activities. It's a great place for launching hikes and bike rides, as well. (Isn't it always true that the best things in life tend to reveal their positive aspects slowly?)

Night view from the balcony.
I suppose any town that is willing to purchase the remains of a great athlete in order to boost its tourism is not shy about attracting business in any form possible... One still hears waitresses asking each other, "Is there a train today?" And when the train comes in, as it did on Saturday and Sunday, the place is all a-bustle with shoppers and seekers of horse-drawn carriage rides.  (We watched Sunday morning go from ghost-town quiet to marketplace buzz within minutes...)

In Jim Thorpe, the bells over the court house call the time and on Sunday morning they wake the residents and visitors (especially those, like us, who are staying in the inn only a few feet away -- both charming and jarring) with hymns... It is a delightfully quirky mixture of history and unabashed marketing; a place whose history is a commodity that is a bit elusive in its shadowy issues but that doesn't seem frozen in amber. The trains -- old-fashioned ones -- run on the old rails they once did back in the coal days, only now, they take people like us on tours through the scenic river valley; at the same time, they bring in visitors from outlying towns for a day of shopping  and these visitors are greeted by a massive blob of anthracite rock that appears to have been left there, quite literally, by a long-gone giant of the Carbon County coal days. (I'd provide a picture, but it is a tad unsavory looking -- a truly Mauch Chunk...)

Brodaway, outbound view.

It was a cool weekend. A good weekend for regular people to spend in a regular town with as imperfect a history as any. It was a little like visiting a friend whose living room is always a little messy but whose welcome is always warm.

Loaded as this statement is with shades of meaning, Jim Thorpe lives up to its name, indeed.

Some more pics follow...

Hotel room view. 
Mauch Chunk station. 
Love this building -- a wine tasting room now. 
"Stone Row"-- built by Packer for his workers. Shops now. 
Statue outside the Packer mansion. 
A moment that had to be shared. A bookshop
cat that I gave perhaps too good of a scratch decided
to perch on my shoulders as I searched through the pickings...
She followed me everywhere.

The train, obviously.