Downtown Jim Thorpe
All photos courtesy of the Jim Thorpe Tourism Agency
If you were to set foot in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, in the early to mid-19th century, shortly after the coal-rich town’s founding in 1818, you’d see a burgeoning industrial center punctuated by Victorian architecture, the majestic Pocono Mountains and the mighty Lehigh River. Visiting this quaint small town today—about an hour-and-a-half drive from Philadelphia and less than a three-hour drive from Baltimore—you’ll not only find much of that past meticulously preserved in its historic buildings, museums and natural treasures but also discover its resurgence as a bustling tourist destination—with a different name: Jim Thorpe.
Victorian-era travelers flocked to this company town built up by coal-mining and railroad tycoons; in fact, it was second only to Niagara Falls as a tourist destination, and 20 or so of the country’s Victorian-era millionaires had a home in town. The coal bust and subsequent closing of local railroads, however, sent the town into rapid decline at the turn of the 20th century. In 1954, the struggling towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged into one borough, adopting Jim Thorpe as its name and constructing a memorial in honor of the late Native American Olympic hero—renowned as one of the world’s most gifted all-around athletes—who had attended school nearby. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that the tide began to turn for the downtrodden town when people started reinvesting in and restoring Jim Thorpe to its former glory.
Nowadays also called the Gateway to the Poconos and the Switzerland of America (for its mountainous setting), this superlative small town frequently ranks on lists of America’s prettiest, coolest, most romantic and most adventurous places.
On the town
Start your exploration in the pedestrian-friendly downtown—listed on the National Register of Historic Districts—at the Old Mauch Chunk Train Station & Visitors Information Center. Here, hop aboard a vintage diesel (or, occasionally operating, steam) train on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway for a 16-mile narrated roundtrip excursion that skirts the Lehigh River and dips into Lehigh Gorge State Park.
Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway
On return to the station, head up the hill on Packer Avenue to the Asa Packer Mansion Museum for a guided tour (open April–October). The 11,000-square-foot 1861 mansion, which was once home to railroad baron, philanthropist and founder of Lehigh University Asa Packer, remains furnished as it was when the Packer family lived there until 1912. Also, stop next door at The Harry Packer Mansion Inn, built in 1874 as a gift from Asa to his son Harry. (The mansion was the model for Disney World’s Haunted Mansion attraction.) Here, you can take a self-guided tour of grand public spaces with 15-foot-high ceilings, marble fireplaces and gilded mirrors; enjoy a drink in the Libations Lounge or on the verandah; and check in to posh accommodations adorned with period antiques and artwork in the manse or the neighboring Carriage House.
Next, stroll attraction-packed West Broadway and Broadway streets, home to the Anita Shapolsky Art Foundation (open weekends Memorial Day–Labor Day), displaying abstract art in a former 1840s church; the Mauch Chunk Museum & Cultural Center (open weekends in April, May, November and December and Friday–Tuesday, June–October; closed January–March), presenting the town’s story from the formation of coal in prehistoric times to the present; and the Old Jail Museum (reopens in May after a winter closing), where seven accused members of the Molly Maguires society were hanged in the late 1800s (ask about Cell 17’s “mysterious handprint” that, despite all efforts to remove it, remains); and the Stabin Museum (open Friday–Sunday), showcasing contemporary art in a former wireworks factory, just to name a few highlights. The Stabin’s Café Arielle is also a great place to grab lunch on the outdoor dining patio.
After lunch, pop in to dozens of shops, including clothing boutiques, antiques stores, art galleries and more. Don’t miss the vintage letterpress shop, old-timey candy store and classic 5&10. Tucked off Broadway, Race Street is often noted as one of the most romantic streets in the Pocono Mountains. Here, you’ll find the famous Stone Row of 16 townhouses hand-built in the 1840s for engineers and foremen of the Lehigh Valley Railroad.
The Inn at Jim Thorpe
All that walking can work up an appetite. Fortunately, dinner options abound, ranging from The Inn at Jim Thorpe’s Broadway Grille & Pub, complete with a Victorian bar and live music (Thursday–Sunday); to Tony Stella’s Encore tucked in a historic mansion and featuring seafood and steak dishes—and above Encore, Stella’s Secret Speakeasy crafting Prohibition-era cocktails; to Moya, where the chef-owner’s artisan cuisine is served in an intimate atmosphere bedecked with his artist wife’s beautiful paintings.
Mauch Chunk Opera House
You also can’t go wrong at the Marion Hose Bar, serving up casual fare complemented by local craft beers and wine in a historic firehouse. After dinner, check out the neighboring Mauch Chunk Opera House, where you can catch a ticketed show—from rock concerts and jazz jams to theater and other special events—in one of America’s oldest vaudeville theaters, in operation since 1881.
Marion Hose Bar
Tired yet? Accommodations are plentiful for this compact town. Along with The Harry Packer Mansion Inn, unique choices include the circa-1870 Times House Bed & Breakfast, with in-room continental breakfast served on china, and the 1849 Inn at Jim Thorpe, featuring 45 rooms oozing with old-world charm and an ornate cast-iron balcony flanking its facade. You’ll also find a smattering of cozy bed-and-breakfasts, guest houses and nearby chain hotels.
In-room breakfast served at Times House Bed & Breakfast
In the country
Today is all about the great outdoors, which can be experienced in a wealth of fun ways, from biking and hiking, to rafting and boating.
Feeling adventurous? Brave the Lehigh River on a whitewater rafting trip. Local outfitters offer dam-release rafting adventures (April–October) on Class II and III rapids as well as family-style rafting trips on Class I and II rapids. For calmer waters, head to the 3,400-acre Mauch Chunk Lake Park, where you can kayak, swim, fish and boat on the 345-acre lake as well as camp, hike, bird-watch and more in the park.
Kayaking on the Lehigh River
If cycling is more your style, hit the Lehigh Gorge Trail through Lehigh Gorge State Park. Sign up with a local outfitter who will shuttle you to various access points along the 25-mile rail trail that fringes the river. Or better yet, take the Bike Train on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway for a leisurely journey to the Lehigh Gorge trailhead, and then pedal back the 25 miles—downhill—to the station. Hiking is also popular on the trail. Whether you explore on wheels or by foot, you’ll see amazing rock formations, waterfalls and wildlife along the way. Scenic overlooks for photo ops and picturesque spots furnished with picnic tables dot the trail, too.
Rafting on the Lehigh River
Pack a light picnic to enjoy near a waterfall before your final cruise back into this postcard-perfect town. And be sure to pedal slowly, taking in as you go the towering mountains, rushing river, and clean, cool air. This is one ride you’ll want to savor.
This article originally appeared in the May/June 2019 edition of AAA World.