Jim Thorpe was founded in 1816 as Mauch Chunk ("little sleeping bear" in the Lenape language) and flourished throughout the 19th century as a center for coal mining, canal trade, and railroads. 13 of the world’s 20 millionaires had homes in Mauch Chunk. In the late 1800s it gained prominence as a summer resort, nicknamed "The Switzerland of America."
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!
44-46 West Broadway
Through The Looking Glass Café