A September 2002 trip
to Jim Thorpe by Truly Malin
Quote: Like me, perhaps you prefer to take "the back roads." But how often does a back road lead you hundreds of miles and across three state lines? This spontaneous journey on what was once an ancient Indian footpath led us to a weekender’s paradise: Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
Attraction | "Reader, Meet Jim Thorpe"
Follow that same road down a hill and in a few minutes you will be on unassuming, one-lane Route 209. On the aging map, it might as well be a mega-highway cutting a straight diagonal from the Hudson River to the bottom left corner of New York State. It meanders slightly while maneuvering through the town of Port Jervis, nestled in the corner of three states (NY/NJ/PA). It crosses the Delaware atop a delicate metal mesh span, then straightens out again as it forges resolutely southwest into Pennsylvania.
Locals who once owned prosperous small businesses on sleepy Route 209 will tell you wistfully that 209 used to be a major trucking route. That no-nonsense direct line made it the obvious choice to bring cargo coming from parts west via the Erie Canal down to Pennsylvania. But like the horses and buggies that came before the trucks, and the Indian footpath that came before the wagons, the trucks fell victim to the evolution of technology. Shipping patterns changed as canals became quaintly obsolete. The trucks of today use three-lane highways, so the towns and stores that used to line 209 like the teeth on a zipper are gone, or if they remain, have become faded and shabby.
Looking for an adventure one morning, my husband and I decided to find out where 209 goes. So we packed our bags and bikes, made a right at the bottom of the hill, and set off down the road in our trusty white Jeep Wrangler.
Several hours later, with Sullivan County long behind us and a feeling setting in that the Poconos would never end, we saw a sign for Jim Thorpe, PA and the Lehigh Valley Gorge. We could almost see the colorful Victorian architecture and feel the spray from the white water rafting tours. Our weekend adventure was about to begin.
While Jim Thorpe is known as a popular weekend destination to most Philadelphians, I’ve found that most people outside of Pennsylvania have never heard of it. Yet the town is an ideal destination for couples, groups, families – in fact, just about anyone.
Over the course of our whirlwind weekend we sampled the best of Jim Thorpe:
The rich, ever-evolving history and legend
The once profitable, still damp and dark coal mines
The unspoiled wilderness, perfect for biking and rafting
Then there’s the Old Jail, with its ghostly handprint, the SwitchBack Railroad, and the excellent Visitor’s Center at the bottom of Broadway.
All this plus friendly people willing to share stories, suggestions, and even their favorite cabaret tunes, made for an unforgettable weekend. We’re already planning a fall foliage expedition for next year!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on February 19, 2003
The town was hit hard by the simultaneous decline of its three major industries, as each was made obsolete by new technologies. The Great Depression put the final coffin nail into many declining towns in Carbon County - but Jim Thorpe also had a long history of attracting tourists, and this fourth industry kept the town alive.
In 1954 Mauch Chunk changed its name to Jim Thorpe, to honor the prominent American Indian athlete whose hometown would not provide a suitable memorial after his death. Thorpe, who won the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Summer Olympics, was also the first president of the American Professional Football Association (the forerunner of the NFL).
Unlike many of the coal towns in the Wilkes-Barre, Schuylkill, and Lehigh Valley regions that fell into ruin, Jim Thorpe has good bones. The buildings were built to last for wealthy coal and railroad barons who could afford to spend a little more on style. Most buildings in the heart of the town have been renovated and painted in Victorian style, and later transformed into antique shops and other unique, inviting little storefronts.
The main street, Broadway, is an uphill climb also known as Millionaire’s Mile, after the former residents and their elegant townhouses. We stayed in a friendly B&B called Broadway House, just high enough up the hill to make it cheaper than the B&Bs at the bottom. It’s a simple but nicely renovated townhouse with some unique features. Broadway House is built against the hillside, so their sunny breakfast room opens out onto an outdoor patio that is lit romantically with lanterns at night. From there, a staircase leads to a series of landscaped terraces running up the mountain to "the Castle", a ruined building originally owned by the Packer family (the railway magnates who founded Lehigh University.) At the top of the hill overlooking the town is the Italianate, wedding-cakey-looking Asa Packer Mansion. They offer guided tours, but I preferred the old castle. Children will love wandering around the ruins, which are carpeted with fallen pine needles and beds of wild periwinkle.
We ended up eating most of our meals at The Looking Glass Cyber Café, a friendly corner restaurant owned by Steve and Dorie of Broadway House. Thursday is Open Mike night so we brought beer and hung around after dinner listening to the crowd. We never would have guessed that Dorie doubles as a cabaret singer – but not until the plates are all cleared and she’s had a glass or two of wine. Don’t miss it!
Broadway House44-46 West Broadway570-325-9190
Through The Looking Glass Café111 Broadway570-325-9633
Attraction | "Death by Broad Mountain Bike Tour"
We selected the 15.5 mile Broad Mountain Loop for an afternoon ride. The trail, listed as intermediate in our guidebook, kicked our butts. We must be getting old. The trail was wide enough and well enough groomed in most places to be used by a streetcar. This was a rare treat, giving the two of us the rare ability to ride side-by-side most of the time.
The problem was the trail’s constantly changing and steep grade. This would have been manageable were it not for the collection of rough boulders that passed for a road across long stretches of the trail. We spent many long moments jostling painfully up and down, although younger and more limber types might have found it an invigorating, exciting challenge. Not these two aging 30-somethings; we were so winded we barely managed to croak our snide comments to each other ... "Is this a road or a (pant pant) streambed?"
The map indicated that we were riding along a ledge overlooking Lehigh Valley for a significant portion of the trail, but we never found a good view. A side trail was marked on the map, but we couldn’t find it. We left our bikes and hiked in a mile at what seemed to be an opportune place and found a cute toad (see photos), but not a clear view of the river. Maybe it was our fault for not being expert topo map interpreters, but I blame the guidebook, which substitutes topo maps for clear directions. I was delightedly smug later when I found mountain bike experts in biking chatrooms complaining about these same maps. (They also said that Matsinko’s ratings are too difficult!)
The trail is open to the sun because of its width, but is lined with woods. It passes many old fields that would be full of animals on closer inspection. We were a little pressed for time, so we didn't dare stop much to look around. However an enormous buck startled us at a point, by vaulting dramatically across the path directly in front of us, and something resembling a badger darted across a field and into the woods as we passed. The trail crosses two refreshing streams that were passable, if a little wet, by bike.
On our frequent stops to catch our breath and gnaw at power bars, we found interesting lichen and fungus beside the trail. The close-up photo below is of an area of surprisingly diverse growth, smaller than the palm of your hand. The toad was smaller than a 50cent piece. Just another hidden gem from this difficult, but rewarding, ride.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on February 19, 2003
Broad Mountain Bike Tour
Route 209, 7 miles North of Jim Thorpe
Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
Anthracite, the fossilized remains of vegetative matter, is a hard coal that was once treasured because it burns almost smokeless. If you know anyone who still has a coal chute in their cellar, their home was probably heated with anthracite at one point. Anthracite was discovered in the Lehigh Valley in 1792. Because anthracite is very labor intensive to mine as compared to other coals, it has gradually fallen from favor. The last anthracite mine in the Lehigh Valley closed in 1972, but was recently opened to the public as the No. 9 Mine & Museum. It was a hot day when we visited, and the year-round 54-degree temperature sounded tempting!
We were greeted by two volunteers who seemed old enough to have attended the grand opening of the mine in 1820. While we waited for a suitable number of tourists to arrive (tours are not given on a set schedule), we gave ourselves a leisurely tour of the "Wash Shanty" museum, where the clothing of up to 450 miners was once stored and cleaned. The building now houses numerous mining artifacts from the area.
The tour was worth the wait! We were given warm jackets emblazoned with the company logo, and ushered into a freshly painted original train that our guides expertly drove out of the sunlight and into the dark tunnel leading to the mine.
Contrary to popular belief, one does not 'descend' into the mine. The train pulled us up a 6-degree slope, which would have been a nice gradual downhill for the mules that once dragged the heavy coal wagons out of the mine. After a few minutes we stopped. Daylight was just a memory as we disembarked in the damp, dark tunnel.
We were lucky to have as our guide Dave Kuchta, the founder of the non-profit organization that built the Museum. Dave spent many years restoring the abandoned mine and making it safe for tourism. Although he modestly claimed not to be a miner, he and his crew spent almost a year digging a several hundred-foot escapeway to satisfy Federal safety requirements. Dave was full of entertaining stories, like the one about the mule that was so smart he could count, and would refuse to pull more than three wagons full of coal at a time. If he caught you hooking up a fourth wagon, he’d stop in his tracks until it was removed. Dave also confirmed for us that canaries really did have a place in the coalmines, though they were notoriously imprecise as measures of air quality. This didn’t prevent miners from using them for testing up until the 1970s.
The "heart" of the mine is the elevator shaft that took miners and coal bins up and down to the four levels of the mine. This was no muzak-filled, wood-paneled closet – the "elevators" were nothing more than metal frames from which were suspended metal rings that the miners had to hang from. If they got an itch, they could forget about scratching it. The shaft was filled with rubble when the mine was abandoned, but was painstakingly dug out by the restoration crew. It is the only intact anthracite coalmine elevator remaining today.
Like the Quecreek mine that filled newspaper pages this past winter, the No. 9 mine is a wet mine. Dripping water combined with minerals in the earth to create a palette of contorted colors and formations on the walls.
In the photo below you can see the mine's "hospital", which held medical supplies but no doctors or nurses to help the miners when they were injured. It is built directly into a coal breast, and hasn't changed much since it was built in the 19th Century, except for the addition of electric lights. Not the kind of place you’d want to be taken after an accident.
The cheery little yellow train creaked on its rails as Dave and his assistant drove us back out of the mine. Water gushed in thin but urgent trickles from the occasional opening or crack in the walls, forming little rivulets next to the tracks. We shuddered. Emerging from the tunnel into the bright summer day, we shed our brown jackets and blinked away the darkness, happy to be free of the unspoken weight of the earth above our heads.
No. 9 Mine & Museum
9 Dock Street, off Route 209
Admission to Mine and Museum $7
Mine open May-November - tours Fri-Sun 10am-4pm
New York, New York