Thursday, August 10, 2023

Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania

Can you create a tourist town from nothing?  Sure!

Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania is an interesting place on so many levels, beginning with the name.  It was named for a famous Olympic athlete and baseball player from the early 1900's.  He wasn't from the town that now bears his name, but the city fathers (of two adjoining towns) approached his widow and asked that his body be buried in the town (and supposedly she was paid handsomely for this) and they changed the name of the towns (combined) to "Jim Thorpe."

Why would they do this?  Well, originally it was a town of millionaires who made their fortune in anthracite coal.  Coal from the mines would be shipped down the river - or more precisely a canal dug next to the river - and sent to the major cities on the East Coast.  As a result, Jim Thorpe today has an amazing array of beautiful Victorian homes and businesses - many of them handsomely done in brick.

Eventually, like the C&O canal, spring floods would wash away the canal system - locks and all.  But by then, the Lehigh Valley Railroad would take its place - and run year-round, rather than just in the summer months.  The Lehigh extended all the way into Central New York, and in fact, there was a short line that ran into Cazenovia at one time.

By then, however, the town was famous as a tourist destination - second only to Niagara Falls, at one time.  People came to see the mountains and the river and the landscape.  The town fathers, I think, saw that the coal business, while lucrative, would eventually move its headquarters elsewhere, and they latched onto this tourist thing, starting with the renaming to "Jim Thorpe."

And today, it is a bustling tourist town, much to the chagrin of locals who end up trapped in traffic, as the main road in and out of town (which is also a truck route) has to pass through a convoluted intersection clogged with tourist traffic and pedestrians.  The historic old homes have been well-preserved, either as residences, or as gift shops and restaurants.  It is an attractive place, just to walk around in.

The railroad is still there, although most train traffic is of the historic railroad, which you can ride - 7 miles - for a fairly nominal fee.  We rode in the dome car, but I think the open carriages would be a more fun ride, provided the weather was temperate.  There is also a "rails to trails" bike path there, and you can put your bike on the train and go up river and ride back.  It is a 1-2% grade downhill, which sounds fun, but given it is a gravel path, you still have to pedal - unless you cheat and get an e-bike.

The bike train only runs on certain days (for 25 miles), although the conductor told us you could bring your bike on the regular train for $5.  But seven miles (and not the most attractive seven miles) didn't seem like much to us.  So we opted to get a lift on an old school bus, and they took us 25 miles upstream.  We packed a lunch and some beverages and set off.  It took an hour or so to reach our the starting point upstream, but it was worth it.

It was a beautiful day and the riding was fairly easy - at first.  But I am no longer a young man.  I used to ride 20+ miles - each way - to Syracuse and back, along the old Erie Canal towpath.  But I was 25 at the time.  40 years later, well, it is a different story, even if it was 1% "downhill."

The last 5 miles were the hardest and we stopped often.  My bum was sore from the bike seat and my knees felt like they were on fire.  Still, we were glad we did the whole 25 miles, as opposed to the shorter, 17-mile trip they also offered.

There are other things to do there, of course.  They offer white-water rafting trips if you are brave enough for that.  And there is hiking as well.  The weather is generally pleasant in the summer (cool to warm) and the scenery is beautiful.

Of course, the scenery the next town over is just as nice, and in fact, it is the same scenery.  So why is this one town a tourist destination and neighboring towns sort of run-down and run-out old mill towns?  Well, as I noted, the town fathers made it a point to go after the tourist trade.  They also preserved the historic Victorian buildings, rather than tearing them down for a Walmart or widening the road to four lanes so that people could rush by.  And the railroad was preserved rather than being torn up for scrap steel.  So many small towns destroyed themselves this way, in the name of "progress."

Back in the 1970's the thing was to "modernize" older buildings.  Wood tones and old barn boards were in vogue, so the 1950's Googie styling of the old IGA was boarding over with some brown wood to make it look more "contemporary."  In some cases, these cover-jobs preserved the architecture underneath.  In others, they destroyed it.  And old buildings, of course, are expensive to maintain - often having to be rebuilt from within.  Everything has a design life, even buildings.  When you see the ruins of the Lehigh canal, 100 years later, you realize that nothing is forever.

In the case of Jim Thorpe, the buildings were worth saving.  In the neighboring mill towns, well, there wasn't much in the way of architecture, just a cheap place to live, work, and shop.  The remaining buildings were sided-over with aluminum, and later vinyl.  And there is little incentive to do otherwise.

We live in a tourist destination, and it is interesting to see the parallels.  We have our "historic district" of old Victorian homes ("cottages" they call them) and a beach and bike trails and "activities" including shopping as well as restaurants and whatnot.  One way to create a tourist destination, of course, is to tell everyone it is a tourist destination.   Provide a few "activities" and some opportunities to open their wallets, and just wait.  Build it and they will come.  Ask Disney about this.

I say this, as we live in a tourist destination and, after a while, it sort of wears off on you, as you get used to this being your home and it doesn't seem so fancy or different.  Then we go back and see how other people live - how we used to live - and we realize how lucky we really are.

If you plan on vacationing in the Poconos, Jim Thorpe is a good place to see - but bear in mind it is a tourist town and all that goes with it.  Yes, we all complain about "the tourists" - driving too slow, or too fast, or wandering out in traffic - until we become tourists ourselves. Then we are the ones being honked at!