The historic town of Jim Thorpe was formerly known as Mauch Chunk, A Leni Lenape Indian name which means "Bear Mountain." The town is a mixture of Victorian architecture and unique businesses... a graceful blend of yesterday with today. The scenery is breathtaking as the mountains present a new face every season. The steep hillsides, narrow streets, and terraced gardens earned Mauch Chunk the nickname “The Switzerland of America.”
For more information visit: www.jimthorpe.org
Early History of Mauch Chunk
Once a lookout for the Lenape Indians, Flagstaff Mountain is 1,600 feet above sea level and almost 1,000 feet above the town. The mountain got its name at the start of the Civil War when a group of patriotic Unionists flew the American flag from the top of a dead hemlock tree on its summit. Mauch Chunk’s most famous Fourth of July celebration took place in 1898, when rail excursion tourism was at its peak. Following the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana Harbor, precipitating the Spanish-American War, the largest American flag ever flown to that date was unfurled across the Lehigh River between Flagstaff and Bear Mountains. The flag measured 75 feet, 8 inches long by 57 feet wide and weighed 265 pounds. Ten thousand spectators cheered, cannons boomed, whistles blew, and bands played as the enormous flag moved from Bear Mountain across the Lehigh on its 3,000 foot cable.
Mauch Chunk was the first wide spot along the river located next to the Broad Mountain. The town got its start as a canal center, and later a railroad center. It was the destination of the Switchback Railroad.
The early growth of Pennsylvania's railroads was closely intertwined with the mining of anthracite coal. In the early 1800s, Pennsylvania coal mine operators faced a daunting challenge: how to carry tons of heavy black coal from their mines to the canals and rivers below, upon which it could be transported to market. Gravity railroads were the initial solution, connecting the sources of coal to the Lehigh Canal, Delaware and Hudson Canal, and other man-made waterways that floated the vital fuel to Philadelphia, New York, and other industrial centers. In 1827, Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company constructed a gravity railroad between Summit Hill and Mauch Chunk (later renamed Jim Thorpe). It took only three months and twenty-six days to complete construction of a line measuring about nine miles in length that included nearly four miles of branch-line track that connected several mines. Freight cars rode on twenty-foot-long wooden rails that were fortified with iron straps. The cars, each weighing about one-and-one-half tons when filled, descended by the force of gravity and returned by the power of mules. In the 1840s, the addition of extra planes and another nine miles of back-track to speed the return of empty cars allowed the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co., which owned the line, to increase both the speed and the tonnage carried, and to dispense with mule power. From this time on, stationary steam engines hauled empty cars up two inclined planes, at Mount Pisgah, directly above Mauch Chunk, and at nearby Mount Jefferson, to an elevation exceeding 2,300 feet. Excavation of the Nesquehoning Tunnel in the early 1870s ended the Switchback's service for moving coal. But the Switchback railroad soon found a second life as a popular scenic railway Visitors marveled at this early version of a roller coaster that allowed them to take in cool mountain breezes, view the Lehigh River gorge from a high overlook, and roll along with only the sound of the wheels marking the motion of the car–all for the price of seventy-five cents. The Lehigh and Susquehanna Railroad (subsequently part of the Jersey Central) and the Lehigh Valley Railroad soon brought thousands of day-trippers from major cities, filling the town's hotels and the Switchback's coffers. Set amidst towering mountains, Mauch Chunk was touted to these excursionists as the "Switzerland of America." In 1873, the Switchback railroad carried 30,478 passengers. Labor trouble in the coalfields, however, depressed Mauch Chunk's reputation as a tourism destination. From late 1875 to mid-1877, lurid tales of murder and violence, combined with the sensational arrest, trials, and executions for murder of members of the secret Irish "Mollie Maguire" organization, kept tourists away. Trials of labor activists in Mauch Chunk and Pottsville through 1876 resulted in a group of executions on June 21, 1877. On the "Day of the Rope," [as it became known], Michael Doyle, Edward Kelly, Alexander Campbell, and John "Yellow Jack" Donahue were hung by the neck until dead at the Carbon County Prison in Mauch Chunk. Tourism rebounded almost immediately after the city dismantled the gallows. But the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 in July curtailed train service on the Lehigh Valley and Jersey Central railroads, preventing tourists from returning, once more. Eventually, the Switchback recovered and, on good days, carried thousands of riders. Two of them, Nellie White of New York City and John Longley of Philadelphia, were married aboard a Switchback car on August 10, 1889. The line remained marginally profitable into the early 1900s, but World War I, the coming of automobiles, and the year-long closure in 1932 of some roads leading to town so that they could be paved, hurt business. The Great Depression sent the company into a decline that not even a community-based "Save the Switchback" campaign could halt. On Independence Day 1932, the line carried a meager 139 riders. The last cars ran in October 1933, and the line was sold for scrap in 1937.
Mauch Chunk and the Railroads
CNJ Passenger Station and Freight House
The Central Railroad of New Jersey Station, also known as the Jersey Central Station and Jim Thorpe Station was designed by Wilson Brothers & Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and built in 1888. It is a 1 ½-story, five bay, red brick building in the Queen Anne style. It features a 3 ½-story, cylindrical corner tower with a cylindrical roof. The station was added to the National Register of Historic Places on January 1, 1976.
The Mauch Chunk freight house was used by train crews as a bunk house and locker room. The freight house was torn down at the end of CNJ’s tenure in Mauch Chunk. It was located on the north end of the passenger station.
At one point, the headquarters of the Pennsylvania Division of the CNJ railroad was located in Mauch Chunk.
Asa Packer and the Lehigh Valley Railroad
Born in 1805, Asa Packer grew up in Connecticut. As a young man, Packer owned interests in canal operations. By 1851, what later became the Lehigh Valley Railroad fell into Packer’s control. By 1855 the LVRR extended to Easton from Mauch Chunk. The railroad also gained access into many coal fields in Schuylkill and Luzerne Counties. Much to Packer’s credit, the LVRR extended into New York State and later became a major player in the New York City to Buffalo, New York Market.
On a personal note, Packer served as Carbon County judge, the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, and also the U.S. House of Representatives. He founded Lehigh University, first suggesting to be established in Mauch Chunk, but later decided to be built in South Bethlehem, PA.
Asa built his mansion along the hillside next to the Carbon County Courthouse. Later, as a wedding gift, Asa built his son, Harry Packer, a mansion just to the north of the original homestead. Upon Asa’s death in 1879, his daughter Mary Packer Cummings inherited the property. The Asa Packer Mansion opened for tours in 1956 and was named a National Historic Landmark in 1985. Today it remains a popular tourist attraction in Jim Thorpe.
History Of The Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway and Reading Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad
In 1985, the Blue Mountain & Reading Railroad began running passenger trains over a short portion of track in Berks County, as well as occasional all-day excursions to various parts of the state. Over the course of the next 20 years, the Blue Mountain & Reading Railroad acquired more track and expanded its operations, and with the purchase of the Shamokin Division of the former Reading Lines, the railroad became known as the Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad. In 2005, with the completion of a railroad bridge across the Lehigh River in Jim Thorpe, a new passenger train operation and sister company to the Reading & Northern Railroad, the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, was born. Currently, the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway operates trains into the Lehigh Gorge State Park from the former Central Railroad of New Jersey station in historic downtown Jim Thorpe, PA on weekends, holidays, and select weekdays May through December. The Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway also operates several special excursions throughout the year, powered by both steam and diesel engines. These trips include our annual Autumn Leaf Excursions from the Reading & Northern Railroad Corporate Headquarters in Port Clinton, PA to Jim Thorpe and back, as well as a variety of rides in coordination with various organizations and communities along our rail lines.
Thank you to the Mauch Chunk Historic Society, Bernard Kerbs, and Josh Laughlin for much of this information and pictures of Mauch Chunk.