If you've never heard of Mauch Chunk, then you probably don't know that this eastern Pennsylvania village was the birthplace of America's most beloved thrill-maker: the roller coaster. From the days of John Quincy Adams through the inauguration of FDR, the mighty Mauch Chunk Switchback Gravity Railroad dwarfed all imitators.
Don't bother trying to find Mauch Chunk on a map. Its name disappeared not long after the death of its famous attraction. However, the town is now enjoying a renaissance under the name Jim Thorpe. And the Switchback--well, this is the story of that once and possibly future roller coaster.
Early last century, Erskine Hazard and Josiah White had a problem. They owned vast anthracite deposits on the mountain at Summit Hill. But the quarry was nine miles from the Lehigh River, the closest navigable waterway. How to get the coal across the intervening valleys and ridges? New technology.
In 1827 they built one of the country's first railroads. At first it was just a single track down to the coal port of Mauch Chunk. Mules pulled the train up, gravity brought it (and the coal and mules) back down at breakneck speeds.
In 1845 they added a "back track" to make an 18-mile figure-eight circuit. The mules were retired when stationary steam engines atop Mount Pisgah above Mauch Chunk and Mount Jefferson near Summit Hill began turning wheels attached to metal bands that drew the train up steep inclined planes--like a fisherman reeling in a catch.
Early on, the train attracted thrill-seekers, so the management provided passenger cars. By 1872, as river transport declined, the Switchback converted to a full-time pleasure ride, and Mauch Chunk became an excursion destination second in popularity only to Niagara Falls. During the Depression, alas, the Switchback vanished.
On a recent trip to Jim Thorpe, we hoped to find someone who had actually ridden it. We climbed up through the fog of a wet Sunday morning to the top of Mount Pisgah and stood looking down the half-mile inclined plane as it dropped 664 feet into the upper town. Through the mist, a figure approached, toiling up the steep slope, pushing a bicycle. A local fellow in an Iron Man T-shirt. "Either of you know CPR?" he puffed cheerfully.
Someone had recently widened and graded the narrow, overgrown path he was used to. Apparently, local movers and shakers want to rebuild the Switchback. The Iron Man didn't approve. "It will just attract more tourists," he moaned.
He showed us around the ruins of the steam engine and the site of a long trestle, over which, he told us, his father used to ferry his aunts, carrying them on his back.
"Did your father ever ride the Switchback?"
"He never mentioned it," said the Iron Man, and pedaled off toward Summit Hill.
After following the wooded Back Track path for a few miles, we walked back to the quaint Victorian town, whose time-capsule appearance was preserved, strangely enough, by its decline. Wealthy coal, timber and railroad barons once lived here. Lower Broadway, the main street, was known as Millionaires' Row; St. Mark's, the Gothic Revival church that dominates the lower town, boasted Tiffany windows and Minton tile floors. There were numerous hotels and even an opera house.
But as industry turned to oil for fuel, the mines shut, railroad traffic decreased, and Mauch Chunk drifted into picturesque somnolence. In 1933, the Switchback made its final run and was sold for scrap. The town's old buildings remained, mostly because there was no money to tear them down.
At the Mauch Chunk Museum on Broadway, we were welcomed by volunteers Norm Ellis and Tom Potter. They were keen to tell us about the town's history, as well as to demonstrate the museum's centerpiece: a 30-foot working scale model of the entire Switchback Gravity Railroad. Ellis operated the model and gave us the play by play. As the little car ascended Pisgah, he pointed. "There's Tom's house."
Tom Potter seemed about the right age. Did he ride it?
"I wish I had a buck for every time I did." Potter, 87, a retired barber, provided color commentary as the two provided a vivid account of the workings of the coaster, including discussions of the brakes (mechanical), the engines' metal bands (probably riveted wrought iron), length of trip (40 minutes up, 25 back), safety features (none) and the prospects for renovation.
"It will cost $20 million to restore the Switchback," says Ellis. "One million per mile plus 2 million for cost overruns."
Potter told us about the town's renaming. When Olympian Jim Thorpe died in 1953, Oklahoma politics prevented his home state from providing a proper memorial. Thorpe's widow suggested that Mauch Chunk, in search of an economic boost, step in. In 1954 the town built a mausoleum for Thorpe and renamed itself in his honor. The ensuing publicity was seen as a first step to increased tourism and economic recovery. (The second, to stop the periodic floods that devastated the town, came with the 1972 damming of the creek over which the town is built.)
What is it like to bike the traces of the Switchback? Rain prevented our assault on the Back Track with its daunting ascents, so we had the bike shop shuttle us up to Summit Hill for a descent along the Down Track.
This is probably the only roller coaster whose extremities are in two different towns. We glided down the quiet streets of Summit Hill, and were soon bumping along the old railroad bed, kicking up gravel, anthracite and mud. We zipped down to the site of the Mount Jefferson underpass, where the Down Track had passed beneath the Back Track. Thunder boomed in the valley as we curved along forested cliffs to Five Mile Tree, shot past a replica of an early tourist car at Mauch Chunk Lake and headed into the Home Stretch above Mauch Chunk Creek.
For a wild and bumpy few miles, it was here that 19th-century thrill-seekers hurtled along at more than 50 mph. A hundred years later, in the rain, gravity combined with history to make the ride seem nearly as satisfying.
WAYS & MEANS
GETTING THERE: Jim Thorpe, Pa., is about 3 1/2 hours from the Beltway via I-95 north to Exit 7 and I-476 north to Exit 34 and U.S. 209 into town.
BEING THERE: Even if you have no interest in the mother of roller coasters, Jim Thorpe offers much--including hiking and biking, boating, nearby white-water rafting and train excursions. The Italianate Asa Packer Mansion was home of the railroad baron; both it and St. Mark's Episcopal Church offer tours. Tours are also possible at the Old Jail, where the Molly Maguires were hanged at a memorably low point in American labor relations and jurisprudence. The Mauch Chunk Museum covers the past 250 million years of local history, and the Jim Thorpe Mausoleum is just beyond the east side of town on Route 903. Biking/rafting firms in town include Whitewater Rafting Adventures (1-800-876-0285), Jim Thorpe River Adventures (1-800-424-7238) and Blue Mountain Sports (1-800-599-4421). Or see the Lehigh River Gorge the old-fashioned way with Rail Tours Inc. (570-325-4606). Ten miles north of town, Hickory Run State Park features the astonishing Boulder Field, a 17-acre lake of rocks that is a remnant of the last ice age.
WHERE TO STAY: The Inn at Jim Thorpe (1-800-329-2599, www.innjt.com, doubles from $65, suites from $159) was built in the '40s (the 1840s) and, elegantly restored, looks out onto the historic district. Harry Packer Mansion (570-325-8566, www.murdermansion.com) looks like something imagined by Charles Addams and acts accordingly: The opulent B&B hosts murder-mystery weekends. A good budget choice is the Country Place Motel (570-325-2214).
WHERE TO EAT: The Emerald Restaurant and Molly Maguires Pub does a stylish "bubble and squeak"--and the Murphy's ale comes in imperial pints. You can dine inside, al fresco or to-go at the Sunrise Diner near the courthouse. The Black Bread Cafe will do you a gourmet meal; it's BYOB, so stop first next door at Big Creek Vineyards.
DETAILS: Carbon County Tourist Promotion Agency, 1-888-JIM-THORPE (546-8467).
"Oh, did I mention the candy bowl on the railing and the chocolates on the pillow?" writes Susan Wyant of Fairfax County, speaking of her and husband Randy's recent weekend at the Sampson Eagon Inn (1-800-597-9722, www.eagoninn.com) in Staunton, Va. "There's also a porch with a swing, a side garden and no children under 12 . . . the perfect getaway for us tired parents in need of a quiet break." The Wyants were impressed with innkeepers Frank and Laura Mattingly's relaxed attentiveness. Rooms at the inn, a restored antebellum mansion near Staunton's Woodrow Wilson Birthplace Museum, start at $95. (Expect most of them to be booked by visiting parents --Mary Baldwin College is just down the road--through early November.)
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