There are many great things to see and do in the Poconos area. One destination that tops many lists is the town of Jim Thorpe. But many people are unaware that the town they currently know as Jim Thorpe (“The Swiss Alps of America”) began its existence in 1815 as the village of Coalville—so named because of its close proximity to a major anthracite coal seam that brought miners to the area. In 1918 it was established at Mauch Chunk—"Mountain of the Sleeping Bear," the Lenni Lenape Indian name for the nearby mountain.
Coal was king for many years in the area and the area fed the growing need for coal to fuel the expanding railroad system that was spreading throughout the region. By the 1950s, however, coal—especially for railroads—was not longer in great demand. That devastated the economy of the town. Not only the mines, but the business that had grown up to support the mining industry faltered and died.
The town—once considered one of the richest towns in America was now struggling for its very life. Because the prosperity of the town depended almost exclusively on coal, there were few other options possible without a major shift in emphasis.
A major shift came in the early 1950s when a group of enterprising individuals considered other ways that the town could be preserved and even grow. They raised money by asking residents to contribute “A Nickel-a-Week” to fund efforts to save the town. But even these entrepreneurial types couldn’t have envisioned what would come next.
The widow of Native American athletic hero, Jim Thorpe, was furious when the state of Oklahoma (where she and her husband had lived) refused to build any kind of memorial for her husband. Although Thorpe was widely known for his accomplishments (including winning Olympic goldand having successful professional baseball and football careers), he hadn’t reaped the financial benefits that went with those accomplishments. His wife desperately needed the money.
Thanks to the “Nickel-a-Week” campaign, the town had collected some $30,000 worth of nickels from the residents. Through an unlikely series of events, Thorpe’s widow agreed that he would be buried and honored by the town of Mauch Chunk—and the town would even change its name to Jim Thorpe in recognition of the famous American, who had never even been to the town.
The idea was to use Thorpe’s fame and popularity to draw tourists to the town. Not everyone was enamored with the idea, and to this day there are residents who refer to themselves as “Chunkers”—a nod to the town’s previous name.
The skeptics were perhaps right. Even though the arrangement received a lot of national attention, it didn’t serve to draw tourists to the former coal town. It took decades of promotion and hard work to bring tourism to Jim Thorpe. The most compelling draw to the area came not from the name of Jim Thorpe, but from the natural beauty of the surrounding area and from the unique mix of historical architecture within the town itself. Many visitors come simply to enjoy the many 19th century styles on display, including Federalist, Greek Revival, Second Empire, Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne, and Romanesque.
The town is also known as an “adventure” destination. And is touted as a great place to live and to recreate. There are many fine restaurants and activities in the town and surrounding area. There are museums, theatres, and outdoor activities galore (including hiking, biking, fishing, and whitewater boating) because of the town’s easy access to the Lehigh River and multiple trails. Check out this post that talks about Jim Thorpe’s Fall Foliage Weekend.
So while the town bears the name of a famous Native American sports hero (and many visitors do visit his memorial), what draws most visitors (in addition to great shopping and dining) is the history of the town that was once known as Mauch Chunk!