Mature Life Features

Cecil Scaglione, Editor

Jim Thorpe’s Legacy Buried in Pennsylvania Coal Town

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                                           By Cecil Scaglione

Mature Life Features 

JIM THORPE, Penn. — Rolling along the country roads stitched through this northeastern pocket of the Keystone State is akin to meandering through central Italy, where every hill is crowned by  a town with its own version of history.

Jim Thorpe is like that. The all-round all-American athlete after whom this town is named was not born here, did not attend school here, and there is no evidence he ever set foot or even drove through here.

Yet this “Gateway to the Poconos,” which as been proclaimed one of the nation’s prettiest towns, owes its survival to the Oklahoma-born Olympic champion who, when the King of Sweden handed him his pentathlon and decathlon medals at the 1912 Olympic Games in Sweden and proclaimed him “the greatest athlete in the world,” said “Thanks, King.”

This struggling little coal community was known as Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk until the 1950s. A sign with that historic title still hangs from  the front of its Victorian train station. It populace had blazed through the heyday of coal and railroad expansion and was existing on those fumes of fame when Thorpe died in 1953. His widow, disappointed and disgusted when Oklahoma movers and shakers refused to establish a memorial to their renowned native son, began shopping around for a place that would welcome his remains.

The Mauch Chunk leaders heard of her efforts when she landed in Philadelphia and, desperate for new lifeblood and new business, agreed to build a memorial for her late husband and rename their town after him. They even dug up some soil from the Stockholm Olympic Stadium and used it to form a small mound at the base of his monument.

Native-American tribal and family factions in Oklahoma have battled through several courtroms to have his remains returned to the Sooner State. An appeals-court decision last year appears to have settled things by leaving matters as they lay.

Visiters who pop into this forest-girdled Carbon County community mid-way between Wilkes Barre and Allentown and wish to visit the man’s memorial head across the Lehigh River about a mile north of downtown to a small park dedicated to the football Hall of Famer who was arguably the finest all-round athlete in recorded history.

If they park in the lot beside the train station that debouched passengers into the heart of the commercial zone, they’re more likely to see Molly Maguires Pub and Steakhouse, a benign reminder that this is where four members of the infamous group involved in a bloody mining war were found guilty of murder and hanged in the mid-1870s.

Comfortable memories of the community’s salad days are housed in the Asa Packer Mansion straddling a hill overlooking the town. Packer started out as an apprentice carpenter who opened a store in Mauch Chunk while operating a boat yard that made vessels for transporting coal along the Lehigh Canal. This led him into the mining industry and, eventually, railroading. His first link was built to Easton, Penn., and his Lehigh Valley Railroad eventually reached out to the Jersey shore. When he died in 1879, his estate was valued at $54 million.

The comfort of his life as an industrialist, congressman, candidate for governor, presidential nominee, and judge are on view for tours of the Victorian building that peers over the town to St. Mark’s Episcopal Church perched on a hill on the other side of the village. Packer was, of course, instrumental in having this Gothic landmark built. Among its eye-catching features are two vibrant Tiffany windows. Today, the church has just a little more than 30 members.

— 30 —

 

 

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Written by Cecil Scaglione

February 16, 2016 at 7:52 am

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