PHILADELPHIA (CBS)–Welcome to Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania, where the rails move tourists from place to place amid the beautiful scenery of the Lehigh Gorge in the Pocono Mountains.
A quick scenic train ride takes passengers to bike, walk, or white water raft their way back to town. But the railroad in Jim Thorpe was at one time — the lifeline for this little mountain town — once known as Mauch Chunk.
“Not many people know that a lot of the anthracite coal that was taken out of the area went through the canals, and later the railroads to go to the markets like Philadelphia — not only for industry but also to actually heat homes,” said Matt Fisher, General Manager of the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway.
While coal wasn’t mined in town, the industry kept Mauch Chunk busy during the industrial revolution.
“The Switchback Gravity Railroad, it’s considered really the first roller coaster in America. But it’s primary use was to take coal off the mountain, down into the town here. And then later on, before it was abandoned in 1930, it became a big tourist location as well,” said Fisher.
By Victorian times, 19 of the country’s 26 millionaires had a residence in town.
Like Asa Packer, founder of the Lehigh Valley Railroad and Lehigh University.
“The first 24 years at Lehigh University were tuition free, paid by the Packer family. And then he felt that the railroad employees getting hurt needed some help in that aspect, so he founded Saint Luke’s Hospital,” said Ava Bretzik, Director & Historian of the Asa Packer Mansion.
In the late 1800s, Mauch Chunk was second only to Niagra Falls as the most visited tourist destination in the country.
“Thomas Edison slept here. Buffalo Bill, Ulyssus S. Grant when he was a General. He actually visited his friend down the street here. President Taft slept here. So it’s got this great vintage pedigree and it continues today,” said Nancy Zeigler with the The Inn at Jim Thorpe.
Built in 1849, and situated in the heart of the historic district, the Inn at Jim Thorpe is still welcoming guests to stay, eat, drink, and play.
“We feel like we’re trying to reproduce the past but making a comfortable, modern place to stay,” said Zeigler.
Just up the road, the old jail museum is a reminder of what happened in town in 1877.
Seven Irish coal miners known as the “Molly McGuires” were hanged — accused of murder.
“There were four men hanged on June 21st of 1877. Kelly, Campbell, Doyle, and Donohue were the four hanged at one time on the gallows. The recreation of that gallows is the one that you see in the cell block right now,” said Betty-Lou McBride, Co-Owner, Old Jail Museum.
Before their hanging, the men proclaimed their innocence and today — historians believe many of the condemned men were falsely accused.
“Thomas Fisher, before his hanging, said ‘I’m innocent. I’m going to leave a mark to show I’m innocent’ and to show what a transgression against society this is. And he put his hand on the dirty cell floor here and put it up on the wall before his hanging,” McBride said.
The handprint can still be seen on the cell wall today.
So when did Mauch Chunk become Jim Thorpe?
The town’s namesake wasn’t given until 1953, when the widow of the accomplished athlete approached the town about his legacy.
“She was looking for a place to give her husband honor. He had died as the most decorated Olympic Athlete, but Oklahoma wouldn’t give him a monument,” said McBride.
Olympian and athlete Jim Thorpe won both the pentathlon and decathlon in the 1912 Stockholm Games.
The town agreed to the name change with the hopes that the name recognition would help boost tourism for years to come.
THE MANSION ON PACKER ROAD
Before the town’s name changed, Railroad magnate Asa Packer made his mark on Mauch Chunk.
He helped build the town’s infrastructure and today his beautiful home still stands — nearly untouched — on a hill overlooking the borough.
The grand building overlooks the old Mauch Chunk national historic district.
But stepping into the home of Asa Packer is like stepping back into the 1800s.
“Asa Packer was a man who was not known until he came here to Mauch Chunk in 1833,” said Ava Bretzik, Director & Historian Asa Packer Mansion.
By the time he died in 1879, Packer was a household name.
He was an industrialist, philanthropist, builder of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, and founder of Lehigh University. He also built his magnificent mansion in Jim Thorpe on a hill in 1861.
“The home was given to the town of Mauch Chunk — now Jim Thorpe — in 1912 by the last daughter, Mary Packer Cummings. She gave the town $60,000 to take care of the home,” Bretzik said.
The remarkable 3 story, 18 room home remained sealed until 1954, when the borough granted trusteeship to the Jim Thorpe lions club, who opened it to the public in 1956.
“We are not a restoration, we are preservation,” said Bretzik.
The home was granted National Historic Landmark status in 1984 and still features all of its stunning details: draperies made with 14 karat gold, dine wood-carvings by European artisans, impressive crystal chandeliers in each room and of course, a self-playing organ.
“I do believe that there was many millionaires, as we call them, that lived here in Mauch Chunk, but I can honestly tell you that I think Asa Packer is the only one here today in 2017 that we still look around and know that he left his mark,” Bretzik said.
To learn more about the Asa Packer Mansion, CLICK HERE.