Saturday, July 2, 2011

The Essential Historic Mauch Chunk (Jim Thorpe) Virtual Tour – In 12 Easy Stops

The following tour is adapted from the spring tours I give my 5th grade students and their families. This past May, over 100 students and family members attended. Here are the highlights and important dates discussed.

If you enjoy this taste of a tour, you can schedule a tour of your own through the Mauch Chunk Historical Society either through the Website or tour coordinator Bill Allison. If you wish, you can request me to be your guide.  (Click Here for more Tour details and to contact Bill.)

If you have any questions for me, feel free to contact through this site or on Facebook.

Josiah White Park:
Students and their families wait for the 6 pm hike to begin.

STOP #1 – Josiah White Park and the Jersey Central Train Station

It all started with coal and Josiah White. Well it was Josiah who first successfully and painstakingly developed the infrastructure to move the coal from mine to market. It was first discovered by Philip Ginter (or Ginder) in Summit Hill. This “mine” was actually a quarry, as the folded over “Mammoth Vein” was a total of 60 feet thick and laid exposed on top of the hill.

Early attempts that included the help of Jacob Weiss and Jacob Cist had failed. Josiah White comes to town in 1818 and begins to tame the wilderness. He gets backing through the establishment of two companies: “The Lehigh Coal Company” and the “Lehigh Navigation Company.” These separate companies were needed as some investors saw opportunity in the coal fields but were leery of the transportation end of the business. The other company was formed for investors who saw the opposite as true.

Eventually the two merged as the “Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company” and many men achieved great wealth from it, though as a corporation it had years of financial difficulties including in the present day as it just filed for bankruptcy in recent months.

A devout Quaker and industrious man, he lived 2 years on a work scow on the Lehigh River with anywhere from 50 to 100 men, depending on the season of the year. The peak work pool occurring in the summer months though the “Stone Turnpike” was surveyed and cleared during the winter of 1818-19. The cart loads traveled the 9-mile steady declination from mine to river but White saw the future need for a more efficient system. Once to the river, coal was shipped on barges down the Lehigh River. The river was made more navigable through White’s ingenious “Bear-Trap” lock invention.

About 12 of these lock and dams were built from Mauch Chunk to Allentown. They created slack water and allowed the flat bottomed barges of coal to flow over the rocks. When the train of 10-14 boats reached a dam, a wicket was turned, taking away the water pressure that held the lock closed. Once released, the boats were shot through in the sluice. Once the boats cleared the last dam, the worker would retrace on foot, resetting the locks to recharge the dams with water for the next day’s shipment. This method was used until the Lehigh Canal became operational in 1829.

White also tried to bring the supply closer to the river by driving the Hacklebernie coal mine tunnel on top of Mount Pisgah in 1824. This was the first underground mine tunnel in North America but it did not at first yield a profitable supply. By 1827, the Stone Turnpike was replaced by the Gravity Railroad, the first leg of what would become the famous “Switchback Railroad,” the first railroad in Pennsylvania, the 2nd in North America, but it was the first of any significance. The rails were wooden with early iron straps capping the top. Cars carried about 1.5 tons and were sent down in trains of about 15, with men on board operating a rudimentary braking system.

Coal drifted by gravity during the day, with mules aboard a specially designed car. At night, the mules would tow the empty cars back to the mine. By 1845, the “Back Track” was completed. A steam engine house sat on top of Mount Pisgah and pulled the empty cars over 2,250 feet of inclined plane, rising 664 feet of elevation. Inside the engine house was a 27 foot wheel that wound up steel bands connected to “barney cars.” The barney cars pushed the cars up the hill in the same manner as modern rollercoaster. In fact, the first coasters were named “switchbacks” because this railroad was the world’s first rollercoaster.

At the top, the cars rolled the 9-miles to the base of Mt. Jefferson, where another steam engine pulled the empty cars up a 2070 foot plane and up 464 feet of elevation. At the top, cars were filled with coal from the quarry field and sent by gravity to the present day hillside location of approximately 200 feet up the hillside between the bridge and the Harry Packer Mansion (See Stop #4).

Once emptied down the “chutes” to the awaiting canal boats (and later railroad cars), the cars drifted to the bottom of Mt Pisgah and the process was repeated. From 1845 to 1872, coal was hauled during the day and dare-devil tourists rode at night with speeds that could exceed 60 miles per hour. In 1855 Asa Packer’s “Lehigh Valley Railroad” was completed. This line ran from Easton to Mauch Chunk and eventually serviced Sayre, PA and Buffalo, New York. It ran on the east side of the river. It is the line operated today by Norfolk-Southern. In 1872 the “Hauto Tunnel” was driven, allowing rail service directly to the mines which marginalized the Switchback as a coal hauler. From 1872 until its demise in the Great Depression, the Switchback was the second most visited tourist site in the nation (Niagra Falls was #1.).

It is said that President Grant and Thomas Edison were once passengers. In 1887, the Jersey Central built the train station we have here today. The Lehigh Valley Railroad station was in the approximate location of today’s sewage treatment plant. It had a carriage bridge across the river to allow arriving passengers access to the Mansion House Hotel. The “Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company”

Other Hikes on this Site:
Upper Switchback Railroad Hike to Mt. Pisgah
Students Explore the Fort Allen Historical Site 

STOP #2 – The Mexican and Civil War Soldiers’ Monument:

Discussion of Floods, Fire and Plague:


July 4th, 1831 – the Mauch Chunk Creek inundates Broadway causing substantial damage and consternation for this fledgling town.

June 9th, 1841 – The Mansion House bridge is swept away. Adam Beers and his wife and children, among others, are never seen again.

June 4-5th, 1862 – 5’ 1” of water in the bank lobby; 17” recorded in the Mansion House parlor; Dams of the Upper Grand section of the Lehigh Canal above Mauch Chunk are breached, sending tidal surges down the river. LC & N Company superintendent John Leisenring estimates 200 people are lost.
Upper West Broadway from 1933 flood.  Note the "Three Towers" School rooftops near pole at right as well
as sign on that pole stating "School Slow Down."  The damming of the Mauch Chunk Creek that created Mauch Chunk
Lake in the early 1970s has done much to eliminate this threat.

A December of 1863 newspaper passage reads: “Another victim of the Freshet Found – On last Monday, while John Schmidt was leveling some earth near the head of the Island, he alighted upon the remains of another victim of that terrible disaster. They were those apparently of a boy about ten years of age; the skeleton was divested of all flesh, and but a small quantity of hair adhered to the skull. Possibly the hair and the teeth which were perfect might serve to identify the individual. The remains were decently interred near where they were found.” The “Island” I imagine to be the strip the land between the river and the canal.
The dam on the Lehigh just about where the Mauch Chunk Creek entered the river created enough slack water
to make a deep harbor for boats to navigate on, to load up with coal and which provided an entry onto
the Lehigh Canal.  In the picture below, taken by my grandmother Mary Strauch Rabenold in about 1903 shows
the dam has been breached  possibly after the 1901 flooding.  

Note the caption in the picture above for more details.  Also note the loaded coal cars around "Sleeping Bear"


July 15, 1849 - Started at the alley by a careless act of placing still hot coals from the cook stove beneath the wooden porch. It raced down Broadway to Susquehanna Street by a “violent” wind, crossed Broadway and burned the other side up to present day “Treasure Shop.” Every prominent business owner lost something: Packer and Leisenring lost stores; the Post Office, 2 newspapers, the jail. 23 buildings all told. Mr. Ebert fell from the 3rd floor of Conner’s Hotel (today’s Inn at Jim Thorpe.) Three released from the jail were caught looting homes and had $250 in jewelry on them and were taken to the nearest prison in Allentown. The only paper to run a story is one in Allentown on July 19th.


The summer of 1854 saw a major world-wide cholera outbreak. Hundreds died in cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore and London. Anywhere from 20-50 died locally, though Mauch Chunk was considered a safe haven from it, thought to be “above the cholera line.” The disease is spread through bacteria in the water and was thought to have been introduced to town by travelers, canal boatmen, or workers on Packer’s Lehigh Valley Railroad. An August 17th, 1854 account: “Some cases have been reported among the boatmen on the canal in this vicinity; but we have not heard the particulars or the result…Sickness and death: Since our last some 10-15 persons have died in this vicinity of Cholera and Cholera Morbus. Among them Mr. and Mrs. Jacob Weiss, Mrs. Leonard Blakeslee, and Mr. Joseph Hunter, Catherine Keen and child…Many more remain sick, two or our most skillful physicians among the number. Mr. West died Tuesday night and Mrs. West on Wednesday morning, leaving a large family of orphan children. We have not time to dwell further upon the mournful subject this week. Every precaution has been taken to prevent the spread of the disease.” Dr. Thompson died August 19th and Dr. Righter on October 11th.

Susquehanna Street, sometimes referred to as the “Golden Way” was the main business street. The Hotel Switzerland at one time was the center of three hotels; built in 1827, it is perhaps the oldest remaining building in Mauch Chunk.

Succession of Homes on the County Annex Parking Lot: 1829, Josiah White builds “Parkhurst.” This home served as the home for three LC & N superintendents: White, Andrew Douglas, and John Leisenring. Sometime around 1886, when Dr. and Mrs Wentz built their Victorian mansion here, “Parkhurst” was taken, piece by piece across the river and sits as a three-unit row home at the bottom of Center Street. The lower unit is a B & B named “Whitehurst” in Josiah’s honor. The mansion became a Moose Lodge and fell into disrepair. It was acquired by the County for back taxes and razed for the current parking lot.

Packer Death Succession:

1. Lucy – 1872 (41 with 3 kids; the only Packer to have children; she married Dr. Garrett Linderman who came to Mauch Chunk during the Cholera epidemic.)

2. Asa – 1879 (74)

3. Sarah Blakeslee Packer – 1882

4. Robert Sayre Packer - 1883 (40; no kids)

5. Harry Eldred Packer - 1884 (33; no kids; Mary Augusta adopted Hazel after his death.)

6. Mary Packer Cummins – 1912 (73; no kids)

Succession of Court Houses:

o 1843 -Converted LC & N stone warehouse –(When county split from Northampton)

o 1854 – Columned classical style (too small; razed)

o 1893 – Current; cut from red Devonian stone from Rockport.

STOP #3– Harry Packer Mansion:

• Used as a model for Disney’s haunted mansion;

• James Exel house built 1890; Leases Hotel Wahnetah 1895;

STOP #4 – Carriage Road -

• Top location of the “Coal Chutes” – a complex of 5 “chutes”;

• Tore down when Hauto Tunnel was built after 1872; Kemmerer married _Annie?_ Leisenring and built his home; Carriage house is all that remains; home fell in disrepair when the K’s went to Wyoming (Kemmerer WY is in Carbon County.)

• Kemmerer’s “Carriage Road” comes out at the upper edge of the Subway parking lot;

• You can begin to see why area became known as the “Switzerland of America.”

STOP #5 – Switchback Placard –

• After the Chutes, empty cars returned to the bottom of Mt. Pisgah

• Show picture of Hotel and Station; note what could be a SBRR or chute car that sits behind the home.

• Point out the lower section of the walled cemetery that is privately maintained by the Leisenring family. The Packer plot is the bottom portion of section 1 of the public section of the cemetery.  Standing on the Switchback Trail, you can see be above the rooftop of the Packer Mansion, yet be below the level where the Packers are buried, all 200 feet above Broadway.

STOP #6 – Far End of Cemetery –

• Benjamin Barge – Area educator, philanthropist and a nephew of Daniel Bertsch.  At the time of Mr. Barge's death, Harry Bobst was choir director of St. Mark's Church who modeled for the Binder Brothers who made the statue.  It weighs 100 tons and stands 80’ high.  It was brought down the Mansion House hill on horse and wagon and hoisted with horses and ropes.  Each Halloween, someone places a Jack-o-Lantern on top of his head.  It is also said that the pages of the book he is holding change from time to time, indicating that he continues to read.

• The Binder Brothers were from the bottom of River St and made many of the monuments including the Angel.

STOP #7 – Looking Down on Castle -

• Dr. Bertine S. Erwin – Friend and Physician of the Packers.

STOP #8 – Dirt Parking Lot at Top of Opera House Hill –

(This is much easier to see in Fall to Spring)

• Point out top of Mt Pisgah; Point to the Trail; encourage exploring biking out to the Lake;

STOP #9 – Behind The Old Jail –

The notice on the left is said to have been used as evidence in the Carbon County trial against the Mollie Maguires
in 1877.  These were said to be given to those who were deemed a nuisance by the Mollies, giving them notice
to change their ways before this coffin becomes "your hous."

• The Mollie Maguires were known to deliver "Coffin Notices" to people who displeased them.  These notes were threats against them for various reasons such as an unusually cruel mine boss or simply someone who spoke out against them.  The name "Coffin Notice" arrived from the threat that a coffin would soon be your house if the offender didn't change his or her ways.  It's been said the Mollies had cut the tongues out of people who spoke out against them.

  •  “Day of the Rope” – June 21, 1877: (Honoring Jefferson’s ideals?: “…All men created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” near our nation’s 101th Birthday.

o Michael Doyle, Edward Kelly & Alexander Campbell (handprint?) – Morgan Powell

o John “Yellow Jack” Donahue – Morgan Powell

o Frank Gowen: Pres. of Phila & Reading RR; P. & R. Iron Co; Schuylkill County DA: “The name Molly Maguire attached to a man’s name is sufficient to hang him.”

o Judge Lavelle: “The Molly Maguire trails were a surrender of state sovereignty. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows.”

• Big Martin Leskowski – First convicted 2/16/1904 – Murder of Boardinghouse operator Mary Yanesick of Lansford; First Escape: Tricks Sheriff Rothermel’s daughter to give him some lamp oil; grabs her keys; 2nd Capture: Butte City, MT with a wife and children; Sentenced to be hanged 2/27/1909; 2nd Escape: Left water run in cell while he hack-sawed bars; Lehighton Press (2/9/17): “Mr. Leskowski is a powerfully built man, and speaks the English language rather fluently, but is also able to speak several others. He is well read, and is highly intelligent.” 3rd Capture: Tucson, AZ 2/1917 – Returned to Carbon; Execution set for July 19th, 1917 – “Gallows erected and poised;” Had he been executed, he would have been the last man in US to be hanged; all states passed laws against hanging, but his original sentence called for it; Atty James M. Breslin “won a stay;” then commuted the sentence, and was eventually pardoned and released.

• William O. Williams – 1980s; Didn’t bath or eat for weeks; lathered up; squeezed through window; hung by his head out second story.

STOP #10 – Dr. Erwin’s Castle

• A local physician and friend of Mary Packer. A bit eccentric, the house fell into disrepair while the aging doctor still lived in it. Currently, a woman of local roots owns the site and is trying to build a vacation home while keeping as much of the remaining structure as possible.

STOP #11 – At Water at Opera House

• This is the area where Josiah White experimented on the “Bear Trap” Locks – so called to keep curious on-lookers from asking questions.

• Continues across and under “Race” St – thus known as it was originally a “Mill Race;” Grist Mill, Lumber/Planing Mill and other water powered industries;

• 1882 – Harry Packer gave $1,500; others donated $1,000 to $500; “schooner”/beer mug/ship; Quaker Hutton; Vaudeville WC Fields and Mae West; Tower tore down in 1930s; Closed as a movie house in 1959; MCHS saved it in 1973; re-opened in 1982 for its 100th birthday;

• The Marion Hose Company building was constructed in 1885 with most of the financial backing coming from Mary Packer Cummings.

• The First Presbyterian Church was constructed in part from the kindness of the “Recluse of Gnaden Hutten,” (See related story here.)

END #12 – Mauch Chunk Museum and Cultural Center

• The tour ends at the Museum where you can see models of Bear Trap Locks and a complete rendition of the 18-mile Switchback Railroad. There are many historical artifacts and informational displays on the history of Carbon County including a 20-minute video of the county’s history. The MCMCC is a non-profit organization. (See their site here.)

TOTAL TIME= 2 hours


Most of our Spring hikes were quite hot and humid.  This unauthorized stop may be the most needed, as the Rainbow's End Ice Cream and candy shop is owned by the grandparents of one of my students who took the tour two of the three nights, getting a much longed for cool and refreshing ice cream from within...

1 comment:

  1. Alan Leibensperger
    56 N. Westmoreland Ave.
    Tucson, AZ 85745
    What a fine web site. I've always been interested in the history of Jim Thorpe and the area. I was particularly fascinated by the old Moose Home that was built by Dr. George S. Wentz when we would pass by on the way between Philadelphia and Weatherly, my father's hometown and where mos of my relatives live. He was the company doctor for the Coxe miners in Eckley before building his home in Mauch Chunk. He also comes from Whitemarsh, Pa. where the family home was where Washington plotted during the Revolutionary War. You may know this.
    As an artist I have numerous drawings and paintings of the old mansion, many which have beend sold.
    I occasionally correspond with Jack Sterling and knew Reggie Pampa when he was involved with the opera house.
    Jim Thorpe is a remarkable and unique small town and you've done a wonderful job in covering much of it's glorious (and inglorious) history.
    Incidentally, one of the Kemmerers married a Leibensperger sometime during the 1800s. I've not yet found any further information on them.
    I have photos of the Wentz mansion by George Harvan and others.
    I'm always happy for any information or addtional photos of the Old Moose Home that I can find. I always wondered how they got the full stuffed moose on the balcony of the turret.
    Thanks for the good work.