Steamtown and Jim Thorpe

I am pretty sure Scranton is not a place that features highly on most people’s Travel Bucket Lists.  Somehow, however, this Summer I ended up going to Scranton for the third time within three years.  The recent visit was inspired by my in-laws, visiting from the UK, since my Father-in-Law is a lifelong, massive railway enthusiast and he very much wanted to visit Scranton.  This is because Scranton is home to Steamtown, a National Park site dedicated to the history of railways.

On our previous visits, we have wandered the adjacent yard and nosed around the freight cars and locomotives parked there.  This, however, was our first visit to the actual National Historic Site museum. The museum buildings circle the periphery of a working turntable and roundhouse.  It was to the turntable that we wandered first.  There was a locomotive that the kids and their grandfather were able to climb aboard complete with a rope to make the whistle blow.  We had tickets for a train excursion so, after an impatient wait in the blazing sun, we clambered aboard some carriages from the 1920s and headed off on a short jaunt pulled along by a steam locomotive.  As it had only been a short while since our last steam train journey, the older kids were not remotely enthused or engaged: the 10 year old decided to nap while the 13 year old had his nose stuck in a book for the entire journey.  I have to admit with struggling to engage myself.  Industrial and infrastructure heritage just is not my thing so, while I could recognise that the young man acting as tour kid was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of this particular railroad and railways in general, I really did not absorb any information or at least none that stuck for more than a short while.  The route took us out to a gorge which was the location of an event that was really the beginning of the end of this railroad company as a commercial venture.  A storm had damaged the line at that spot and, already struggling due to the region’s failing economy, the rail company collapsed.

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By the time we hopped off the train and toured a section of the roundhouse with several locomotives on display, three of the kids had had enough and went to go and play outside the museum under the supervision of their grandmother, who readily volunteered for the job.  To be honest, the only reason the 10 year old stayed with the remaining three adults was because of the air conditioning though I think he actually quite enjoyed the museum.

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Much of the museum’s contents were the result of a seafood millionaire collector and was originally housed in New England. For various reasons, the collection was relocated to Scranton in the 1980s and eventually won National Park status.  Nevertheless, the place struggles financially.  I guess there are not a high enough proportion of railroad enthusiasts in the country who are intent on visiting Scranton to make it economically viable.

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Regardless of its woes, however, we found the museum to be organised and well considered.  I actually quite enjoyed wandering through historic carriages because they represented an aspect of social history.  It was interesting to see how cramped the sleeping conditions were within a Pullman carriage, for instance, but the lounge area and dining area on the same carriage were pretty spacious.  My favourite, however, was a mail car.  I loved the rich patina of the wood and all the little shelves.  It appealed to my love of organising things.  I could actually imagine myself rattling along the tracks while placing the mail into the appropriate pigeon holes.

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The museum had clearly figured out that it needed to appeal to people like me who were into social history more than industrial history as one whole area was dedicated to displays about people of the railroad.  As well as there being a vintage ticket booth and waiting room – where my 10 year old did an outstanding method acting job of “imagining” he was sick and tired of waiting – there were displays revolving around different types of people.  We could, therefore, learn about the role and history of such folks as conductors, telegraph operators, hobos and the little kids who sold newspapers, snacks and drinks to passengers.

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My Father-in-Law thought that Steamtown was absolutely terrific so clearly it is the perfect place for railway enthusiasts to visit.  I, therefore, highly recommend it to people who fall into that category as even I could recognise it was a great collection.  The rest of us, however, were less enthused and had to really work hard to find an engaging angle.  While I saw plenty of other kids who were loving the whole experience, including a fair few who were dressed up like tiny railroad engineers, my boys were totally not digging the the place at all.  They were relieved when it was time to move on to other things.

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After a quick snack and a run around the Boulder Field at Hickory Run State Park – a place we always enjoy visiting – we visited Jim Thorpe.  Our first stop was at the Jim Thorpe Monument.  Jim Thorpe is celebrated as the first Native American to win a gold medal in the Olympics.  While the medals he won were for pentathlon and decathlon, Thorpe was an accomplished athlete in several sports, including American Football, baseball and basketball.  The memorial statues at the site represent Thorpe in two of his fields of sporting success: football and athletics.  Apparently the grave monument includes soil from Oklahoma, Thorpe’s home state, and from the site of the stadium in Stockholm where he won his Olympic golds in 1912.  It is also inscribed with the words of Gustav V proclaiming Thorpe to be “the greatest athlete in the world” which actually does not seem ridiculously superlative given Thorpe’s multitude of achievements.

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The town of Jim Thorpe was one we had often driven through since emigrating to Pennsylvania but had never wandered around in.  We, therefore, decided to get out and have a stroll in the late afternoon sunshine.  Jim Thorpe actually never sat foot in the town that bears his name.  The story of how it came to be named for the athlete is actually quite a sad and somewhat sordid one.  Upon his death in 1953, his widow (his third wife) made off with his remains, apparently without the knowledge or consent of any of his children, and made her way to Pennsylvania where she had struck a deal with a town regarding memorialising her husband.  Thus the town purchased the body and Mauch Chunk was renamed Jim Thorpe in his honour.  Thorpe’s children pressed various courts to order the repatriation and reinterrment of their father’s remains to Oklahoma, specifically on Native American land, but all attempts failed and so they continue to remain in a small town in the Poconos.  Told you it was sad and sordid.

The town itself is rather quaint and picturesque, a cluster of streets nestled in a mountain valley, lined with interesting buildings.  Mauch Chunk was founded, as with most places in the area, because of the mining industry and it was an important hub for the railways transporting coal from the Poconos to the region’s cities and across the nation.  As such, the town’s prosperity very much follows the familiar curve of boom and decline.  It’s the variety of 19th Century architecture there, however, that probably gives it a bit more of a boost than most places in the vicinity because it makes it visually appealing and that attracts tourists and tourism businesses.

 

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We focused our stroll on the street named Broadway, knowing the kids were unlikely to tolerate a longer meander than that.  The architecture of the place really is pretty fascinating with, for example, buildings that would not look out of place in New Orleans’ French Quarter given their ornate wrought iron balconies sitting on the same street as buildings with European style turrets.  I particularly liked the red stone library and the old fire station with its arched doors and bay window.  We browsed in the windows of a few shops and even made a purchase in one, a shop that sold nothing but varieties of jerky including ones as exotic as mako shark.  Mr Pict and the Pictlings settled on a sample pack of interesting beef jerkys.

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Ultimately we did not spend much time in Jim Thorpe but I think we will definitely stop off there again and have a more extensive wander and perhaps visit the museums and historic buildings next time.  I think we will steer clear of the railway for a while though.  I think my kids are a bit sick of trains now.

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11 thoughts on “Steamtown and Jim Thorpe

  1. Always fun to travel along with the Picts! Interesting, although as you say, sordid and sad, story about the town named Jim Thorpe. There is a song by Harry Chapin that features Scranton, PA – “10,000 Pounds of Bananas”. It features a heartsick young man, a truck filled with 10,000 pounds of bananas, and a very steep hill. It doesn’t end well…..

  2. I recently read a book about the history of the US post office that included descriptions of working on a mail train, sorting mail in cars such as you saw. Apparently it was a sought after job and hard to do. Interesting to see your picture of the train car. Jim Thorpe, the town, sounds great; I’ve had it on my list, this encourages me. I have felt that Jim Thorpe, the person, got cheated in a lot of ways in life, and re-reading your story of his end, well, it really seems that he got exploited all through life and into death. It is just sad.

    • Indeed, the story of Jim Thorpe (the man) is one of incredible ability and success and appalling misfortune. It is impossible not to see the way racial prejudice shaped his life. The fact that even his death and his body was exploited for the gain of others is terribly sad.

      I think you would find the town interesting. I believe it has been attracting artists including rotating resident artists for some years. There is certainly evidence of creativity.

      • That’s the context I’ve heard of it – from the art angle. Thanks for your recommendation. And as for Jim Thorpe himself, it seems he was marked for a rough road in life from the beginning – seemed almost like every last person he met up with in the various aspects of his life found a way to cheat him or exploit him. I agree. Terribly sad and makes you feel ashamed, on behalf of society, at this late date, for what happened to him.

  3. Nice to join you for another interesting day out! I’ll always think of Scranton as the setting for the American remake of “The Office”, so it’s nice to see another side of it… And like you, I was pretty taken with that mail car! Wouldn’t one of those make the best craft studio ever?

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