Jim Thorpe, Pa., offers plenty to do, even for laid-back visitors

By Brian Yarvin
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, June 18, 2010

Jim Thorpe, Pa., is a town that offers so much to do that it might scare people. With rafting, mountain biking, paintball, gallery hopping, hiking, museums, shopping, concert venues and steam train excursions, it's understandable if some people worry that they'll be sucked into a vortex of guided activity if they visit.

I'm here to tell you otherwise: You can have a great time in Jim Thorpe even if you don't want to do anything. For me, a nice stroll up Broadway, a beer in a classic Pennsylvania tavern or even just a browse through racks of used books outside an antiques store make this town of 5,000 about 40 miles northwest of Bethlehem worth a visit.

Before we go any further, let's answer the question that's on everybody's mind: How did Jim Thorpe get its name?

In the early 1950s, when the place was two adjoining towns, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk, it was looking for a shot of publicity. It soon heard that the third wife of the late Jim Thorpe, the great Native American athlete, was offering his remains to any place that would build a fitting memorial to him. Mauch Chunk was ready, willing and able. The body arrived on Feb. 8, 1954, and the first monument was built soon after. And on May 18 of the same year, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk were merged and renamed Jim Thorpe.

The town has seen it all. During the early 1900s, the flood of tourists riding the Switchback Gravity Railroad -- the railway that hauled coal from the mines at Summit Hill down to the town and that many consider the nation's first roller coaster -- made it second only to Niagara Falls as an American tourist destination. Yet when the Great Depression hit and the railroad was sold for scrap, the place became destitute. Things started turning around in the late 1970s, when artists began buying the old stone rowhouses, Lehigh Gorge State Park was created and the current community started taking shape.

One recent morning, I strolled up the route of the Switchback Gravity Railroad. Today, with the rails removed, it's a pleasant journey for hikers and mountain bikers. Roughly paralleling West Broadway, it leads up a steep slope with views of the town. Back in the day, the Gravity Railroad would hit 60 mph rolling down this hill. It must have been quite a ride.

I left the path at the top of West Broadway and visited the CCCP, the Carbon County Cultural Project, a cluster of art galleries in a repurposed garment factory with a hip restaurant and cocktail bar attached. There's plenty of interesting work on the walls, but the most fascinating aspect is the center itself. Beautifully rebuilt and completely contemporary, it feels urban enough to be in New York or London.

As I walked back down the hill, it was the houses that grabbed my attention: typical Pennsylvania working class at the top, becoming more affluent as you approach Market Square and the train station. Many of the homes had been converted into small shops. Most of the stores sold decorative objects: prints, jewelry, woodcarvings and old household items.

At noon on a spring Saturday, I greeted the owners as they set up shop on their front porches. I stopped, admired some old hand-cranked eggbeaters and passed them by. Ditto for the used books and the bath and body-care stuff. I'm not much of a shopper.

Later on, I visited the Anita Shapolsky Art Foundation, a small museum named for the New York art dealer who set it up in an old church. When I walked through the door, the woman in charge cried out, "This is an art museum!"

Of course it was. The abstract impressionist paintings by Ernest Briggs and Seymour Boardman on display had an exuberance and energy that fit the town and set the mood for the rest of my day.

Looking for something to eat, I went to a friendly local tavern. Pennsylvania has a long tradition of great beers on tap and solid meals served alongside. At Antonio's, a place that somehow combines a classic beer bar and pizzeria, I ate a huge plate of pasta at the bar while drinking Yuengling Lager, the legendary local beer. Within 15 minutes, I was talking beer, food and history with the regulars.

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