Jim Thorpe

Jim Thorpe

With its stunning location in the Lehigh Gorge, its Victorian architecture, and its rich industrial history, Jim Thorpe regularly makes top 10 lists—among them, the most beautiful small towns and the most romantic places to visit. Tourism has long been a part of the Carbon County seat—aptly nicknamed “Little Switzerland”—but what draws visitors has changed over the years.

Originally known as Mauch Chunk (Lenni-Lenape for “sleeping bear”), the borough was founded in 1818 by Josiah White and Erskine Hazard as a company town for the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company (LC&N), a hub for the transport of coal from Summit Hill. The Switchback Gravity Railroad carried coal downhill from the mines to Mauch Chunk, where it could be transported south via the Lehigh Canal. The railroad also attracted tourists, who came to ride it as they would a roller coaster. By the Victorian era, Mauch Chunk was second only to Niagara Falls as a tourist destination. Visitors arrived by train to the station that now hosts the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railroad.

As the reliance on coal and railroads declined, Mauch Chunk’s jobs disappeared and the businesses and tourists left. Looking to turn things around, the town and its neighbor across the river, East Mauch Chunk, agreed to merge and name their new borough Jim Thorpe in honor of the famous Native American athlete. Thorpe’s remains were moved to the town, and a monument was erected in his honor. The renaming did not result in the hoped-for construction of a football hall of fame or a tourism boom. But, slowly and surely, the town regained its pull. The opening of Lehigh Gorge State Park and the D&L Trail brought people who rediscovered the area’s scenic beauty and recreational opportunities. Others were drawn by the architecture and history. Less obvious, but perhaps more powerful, was the hard work, belief, and cooperation of the residents and business owners.

The Mauch Chunk Opera House is a microcosm of the town, changing with the times through boom, bust, and revival. Built in 1881, the concert hall was a regular stop on the vaudeville circuit. In the 1920s, it became a movie theater and, later, a warehouse. Saved from the wrecking ball in 1975 by the Mauch Chunk Historical Society, the hall underwent restoration work and returned to its theatrical roots, hosting local theater productions. But by 2003, it needed extensive repairs. That’s when singer-songwriters Vince DeGiosio and Christine McGorry-DeGiosio, as well as businessman and gallery owner Daniel Hugos, got involved. They founded JTAMS Productions, leased the building from the Mauch Chunk Historical Society, and began to restore the building to create a premier venue for top touring talent.

“We started with shows once a month,” Vince recalls. “Now we’re up to about 120 a year. We started with jazz and singer-songwriters, then we added more familiar acts, tribute bands, jam bands, and classical. We truly offer something for everybody.”

The Opera House also hosts the “40 Story Radio Tower,” a monthly radio theatre production featuring music, stories, and poetry recorded live for podcast broadcast, and recently started a free concert series. “It’s a cultural center that brings people into the town and into the businesses,” he says.

The Jim Thorpe Tourism Authority, an all-volunteer organization of business owners, also brings people into town. The Authority, about 100 members strong, maintains a vibrant website, puts out a visitors guide, organizes several major festivals each year, assists businesses with their own events, and markets the borough as a year-round destination.

“All of us want to see the town succeed, and we’re very passionate about our businesses,” says JTTA President Jennifer Christman. “Our biggest hurdle is that there is only so much infrastructure to handle the tourists,” she says, noting that parking is a premium, particularly on weekends and during events.

With that in mind, JTTA is expanding its programming to encourage people to come midweek. This year, it is launching a Third Thursday event, during which shops will be open later and there may be a farmers’ market and other special events. “We want to reach out to our locals,” Jennifer says, adding that many of them avoid the town on busy weekends.

Locals and visitors will also benefit from the pedestrian bridge across the Lehigh River, scheduled for completion later this year. The bridge will connect Jim Thorpe to the Weissport section of the D&L Trail.

“People will be able to park in Weissport and walk or take their bikes into town and not worry about parking,” Jennifer says.

Tourism isn’t the only thing growing in Jim Thorpe, which Jennifer says has been welcoming a number of restaurants and new shops.

Amy Pienta and her husband, Mitch Hanson, opened Somersault Letterpress last spring in the former Dugan’s General Store on Broadway. Pienta, who grew up in Wilkes-Barre, used to come with her family on day trips to Jim Thorpe. She remembered the town as she and Hanson began to look for a new location for their Las Vegas business.

“I wanted to move somewhere where we could put down roots and be happy for the next 20 years,” Amy says.

The couple was quick to act when the 19th-century brick mansion went on the market. After restoring the first floor to its Victorian roots, they opened at their new location, which enabled them to add a retail component to their business. They offer custom-designed letterpress printing, such as wedding invitations, business cards, and birth announcements.

The shop features letterpress paper goods, gifts, and stationery—much of it made in-house, in view of the customers.

“We expose people to the process behind the products. People realize that there are still makers out there. They get really excited about that,” Amy says. “Jim Thorpe is like a vortex. For a lot of us, it works its charm, and you can’t escape it.”

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