A History of Failed Attraction
June 21, 2015 3:15 PM   Subscribe

Just an hour North of NYC there's a nice little hike to be had up the Timp-Torne Trail to the top of Dunderberg Mountain. This is the best way to view the remains of the Dunderberg Spiral Railway.

The Dunderberg was planned to build on the success of the Switchback Gravity Railroad of Mauch Chunk, PA. Originally a company town founded by the founders of the Lehigh Coal & Navigation Company, Mauch Chunk sat at the base of Mt. Pisgah on the shores of the Lehigh River; the switchback was built as a means of transporting coal from the ridge above to the town below, where it would be loaded on coal arks and floated downstream on man-made "artificial freshets'- basically, floods- which would carry the arks over the rapids and rocks all the way to Philidelphia. It was the second railroad in America- the first in a long line of seconds.

Anyway, by the latter half of the 19th Century the development of steam trains and advances in coal mining had obviated the Switchback's role in industry, as well as Mauch Chunk's. Luckily the Switchback was given a second life as a tourist attraction; supposedly the largest in the nation, second only to Niagara Falls! Mauch Chunk dubbed itself the 'Switzerland of America' (though some might disagree). And the celebrated Switchback was the inspiration for a first- the first real rollercoaster, Coney Island's Switchback. Construction on the Dunderberg Spiral Railway, however, ceased after a year and a half when the money ran out; all that remains is a tunnel and some graded trackbeds. Nice little hike.

During the Great Depression the Switchback closed and was sold for scrap. Mauch Chunk fell on hard times and eventually fell off the map altogether. Quite literally- it's not there anymore. That's because in 1953 Mauch Chunk (and East Mauch Chunk) were renamed in honor of Jim Thorpe.

Jim Thorpe, 'the Greatest Athlete in the World' according to none other that Gustav V, King of Sweden; Jim Thorpe, two-time gold medalist in the 1912 Olympic Games (decathlon and pentathalon, though later these were stripped due to a violation of the rules regarding amateurism); Jim Thorpe, professional baseball player (for the NY Giants, then the Reds, then the Giants again and then the Boston Braves) AND professional football player AND professional basketball player, died penniless and nearly forgotten in Lomita, CA, in 1953. His body was shipped to Shawnee, Oklahoma, near where he was born (it was Indian Territory at the time), but before the town could raise the funds for an appropriate memorial his third wife, Patricia, had his mortal remains clandestinely shipped to Mauch Chunk.

After WWII Joe Boyle, the editor of the Mauch Chunk Times-News, started a 'nickel-a-day' campaign to raise funds for... something? The drive may have been aimless but it was successful; eventually $35,000 had been raised, attracting national attention- and the attention of Patricia Thorpe. A deal was struck, a memorial built, and Jim Thorpe's remains interred, where they remain to this day. Mauch Chunk (and East Mauch Chunk) united and renamed themselves to great fanfare- and nothing happened. Patricia Thorpe's promises- an orphanage, a good word with the commissioner promoting Jim Thorpe as the location for the Football Hall of Fame, a second chance- failed to materialize. The $35 grand was gone. Jim Thorpe lingered on in obscurity (although Jim's Olympic Medals were reinstated, thanks to Gerald Ford of all people). Joe Boyle, the town's biggest booster, died as he lived- promoting the town- when the float he was riding in the Memorial Day Parade broke loose and flipped over.

But Jim Thorpe has come around- though not exactly the tourist mecca of Joe's dreams, it has a thriving downtown, a tourist railway (though not the Switchback- but you can hike it), and it's own homespun history museum. But it might not house Jim Thorpe much longer, if his ancestors get their way. America!
posted by Admiral Viceroy (4 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting post! I used to live up in that area, and I vaguely knew there was some sort of connection to Jim Thorpe, but I had no idea about the full details, or anything about the railroad.

There used to be (maybe still is) a trap & skeet shooting range up on Thunder Mountain; (as far as I recall none of the locals called it Dunderberg). Sometimes you could hear the shooting from my old house - Thunder Mountain indeed.
posted by Guernsey Halleck at 5:30 PM on June 21, 2015 [2 favorites]

© 1997!
posted by notyou at 6:05 PM on June 21, 2015

Such a post!
posted by Ogre Lawless at 12:31 AM on June 22, 2015

We did a hike up to Dunderberg today, but saw only a couple portions of the graded railbeds. There were many views and we had it all to ourselves on a weekday. Next time we will do the Timp approach.
posted by computech_apolloniajames at 8:05 PM on June 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

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