Road Trip: Scenery and history in Jim Thorpe, Pa.

| Saturday, Sept. 29, 2012, 9:03 p.m.

Few places boast the history, scenery and singular pedigree of Jim Thorpe.

Start with its dramatic topography and lush wooded surroundings. The picturesque Victorian hamlet hunkers down at the foot of a valley carved by the Lehigh River in Carbon County in the eastern part of the state.

From 1850 to 1910, Jim Thorpe was second only to Niagara Falls as a honeymoon destination. A writer for Harper's Weekly dubbed it “The Switzerland of America.”

Back then, it was known as Mauch Chunk (Sleeping Bear). It was renamed Jim Thorpe on May 18, 1954, when the towns of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk voted to unite and take the name of the Native American and Olympic champion that many consider to be the greatest athlete of the 20th century. Thorpe had died the previous year.

Patricia Thorpe wanted her husband to have a proper resting place. Borough officials hoped the name change and the prestige of being Thorpe's final resting place would help to reverse their declining economic fortunes.

Prior to the name change, however, the town had already distinguished itself as a linchpin of the Industrial Revolution as a transportation center for anthracite coal. Coal and railroad tycoons built mansions; at one time, 70 percent of the nation's millionaires owned residences there.

In addition to museums, railroad memorabilia, outdoor sports, art galleries and upscale restaurants, Jim Thorpe's wooded abundance makes for a spectacular show every autumn, when the leaves seem to catch fire. October is the busiest month, when the town hosts the Fall Foliage Festival on weekends.

Bart Springer, president of the Jim Thorpe Chamber of Commerce, suggests visiting during the week if you know what's good for you. The town, which has a population of about 4,800, receives as many as 20,000 visitors on weekends in October.

Pittsburgh native Burr Beard moved to Jim Thorpe after a career in radio that took him to Virginia and North Carolina. He plays dulcimer for the band Devilish Mary and volunteers at the local chamber of commerce.

“You come down the mountains, and the first thing you get are these four mountains that all come together and the ribbon of the Lehigh River cutting through it.” Beard says.

Jim Thorpe recently came in fourth in the 2012 Best Small Towns in America Contest survey hosted by USA Today and Rand McNally. The town was included in the 100 Best Adventure Towns in a survey by National Geographic.

William Loeffler is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7986.

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