Mauch Chunk

Oral History

Mauch Chunk, now known as Jim Thorpe, is situated on the west bank of the Lehigh River in Carbon County, approximately four miles north of Lehighton. The name Mauch (pronounced mock) Chunk was derived from the term “bear mountain” in the language of the native Lenni Lenape people. The name is a reference to the round mountain on the east side of the Lehigh River that resembles a sleeping bear.

Mauch Chunk was founded in the fall of 1818 when the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, headed by Josiah White, began extensive work to make the Lehigh River navigable for the transport of anthracite coal. Anthracite was being mined in Summit Hill, a small “patch town” eight miles west of Mauch Chunk. White and his crew of workmen successfully completed a series of bear trap dams between Mauch Chunk and Easton, 46 miles downriver, and began transporting coal on large wooden arks down the rough-and-tumble Lehigh.

As anthracite gained more acceptance in the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia, White and his business partner, Erskine Hazard, began planning better systems for moving the coal from the mines and on down the river.

In 1827, they opened the Mauch Chunk Rail Road – a gravity railroad – under the auspices of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. Coal from Summit Hill was loaded in long wooden cars and sent down to Mauch Chunk on the narrow railroad by gravity. To return to Summit Hill, the cars were pulled up Mt. Pisgah and then Mt. Jefferson by mules, which were later replaced by large steam engines at the tops of Mt. Pisgah and Mt. Jefferson.

White and Hazard’s second undertaking at Mauch Chunk was the building of the Lehigh Navigation, also called the Lehigh Canal. The canal was an ascending and descending system built with 49 locks that allowed boats to travel north or south. Mauch Chunk was the canal’s northern terminus and Easton the end point to the south. Wharves were built along the Lehigh River where canal boats were loaded with anthracite from the mines at Summit Hill.

Mauch Chunk’s population grew from 269 in 1822 to 2,000 by 1840. The town expanded across the Lehigh River where East Mauch Chunk took shape. The coal and canal businesses boomed during the 1840s and 1850s and Mauch Chunk became even busier when the Lehigh Valley Railroad, owned by Asa Packer, opened in 1855. Packer’s steam-driven railroad ran to Easton and delivered coal much quicker than boats on the Lehigh Canal.

By 1900, Mauch Chunk’s population swelled to 4,000. The Mauch Chunk Rail Road became the Switchback Railroad and its primary cargo became tourists who thrilled to the hair-raising, up-and-down ride through the mountains. The Switchback remained a popular tourist attraction until 1932 when it became a victim of America’s Great Depression. President Ulysses S. Grant and  Thomas Edison were just two of the personalities who rode the Switchback.

Following the 1953 death of renowned athlete and Olympic medal winner  Jim Thorpe, the boroughs of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk merged and adopted the name of Jim Thorpe in hopes of attracting attention and tourism to bolster the local post-industrial economy.