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The Regilding Of A Legend
Jack McCallum
October 25, 1982
Jim Thorpe's Olympic gold medals at last have been restored, but for Thorpe's family all won't be right till his body lies in ancestral ground
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October 25, 1982

The Regilding Of A Legend

Jim Thorpe's Olympic gold medals at last have been restored, but for Thorpe's family all won't be right till his body lies in ancestral ground

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Actually, the idea of burying Thorpe among his ancestors had been anathema to Patricia from the beginning. In the middle of a burial ceremony the Sac and Fox were holding for Thorpe at Shawnee, Patricia drove up with a hearse and took Jim's body away to a crypt she had rented in another Shawnee cemetery. "It was a slap in the face to all the Indian people," says Jack. "She never accepted us." Patricia eventually moved the body to Tulsa when the rent on the crypt in Shawnee became overdue.

Patricia had decided to get her husband buried in her own way and set off across the country to find what she considered to be a fitting memorial. There's every indication she was doing some fortune hunting, too.

Even today, 74 years after Thorpe first earned All-America honors playing under Warner, Carlisle, Pa. seems like the logical resting place for him. Carlisle and Thorpe, Thorpe and Carlisle—you can't think of one without the other. The town of Carlisle did indeed want the body. When the Warner Bros, film Jim Thorpe—All American premiered there in 1951, a local committee headed by John B. Fowler tried to strike an agreement on burial rights with Thorpe and his wife. The committee had even decided on a burial site near the field where Thorpe used to play. "Pat just wanted too much money," says Fowler, now a resident of Charlottesville, Va. "We felt like we were getting in a bidding war. We tried, even after he died, but her price was too high."

Patricia's journey eventually brought her to Philadelphia, where she intended to talk to Bert Bell, then the NFL commissioner and a longtime friend of her husband's. But in her hotel room one evening she heard a story on the television news about a small town 90 miles north that was asking its residents to pledge a nickel a week to create an industrial development fund. A town with such spunk and drive, thought Patricia, should be called Jim Thorpe.

The town's name at that time was Mauch (pronounced Mock) Chunk, which comes from a Lenni-Lenape Indian word macht tschunk, meaning "bear mountain." Actually, there were two distinct towns at the time, Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk. The towns were separated by a deep gorge cut by the Lehigh River and by an even deeper enmity. Nobody seems to remember exactly why the Chunks couldn't get along, but each section had its own schools, churches, municipal services and fierce loyalties.

Some people in the communities thought it was time to patch up the differences, and the Nickel-a-Week Fund was part of that new feeling. A consolidated name was an obvious step, too. So a stranger peddling a name change came along at the right time. Patricia also found the right person—Joe Boyle, the energetic editor of what was then the Mauch Chunk Times-News. Boyle had organized the Nickel-a-Week Fund and written editorials in his paper about the need for consolidation.

It was in late September 1953, about six months after Thorpe's death, that Patricia offered Boyle the body in exchange for the name change. At first Boyle thought the idea preposterous, but it started to grow on him for three reasons: A totally new name was a way to appease both sides in the Chunk dispute; there was the possibility that Thorpe's body could give the town a boost; and he thought the town could give the Indian a proper eternal home.

Lord knows Mauch Chunk needed a boost about as badly as Thorpe needed a resting place. A century before, it had been a booming transportation center through which passed trains filled with anthracite coal, the primary source of energy and heat at the time. The Switchback railroad, an ingenious gravity-rail system built in 1827 by the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Co., carried anthracite from Summit Hill, nine miles north, to Mauch Chunk. From Chunk, the Lehigh Valley and New Jersey Central railroads then took the coal to ports in Philadelphia or New York City.

There was money to be made in Mauch Chunk in those days, and the railroad barons made it. Any Chunker who knows his local history can tell you that 13 millionaires once lived along Broadway, Mauch Chunk's main thoroughfare.

And there was the natural beauty of the area. Tucked in among the mountains, with its own falls (the Glen Onoko) and its own river (the Lehigh), Mauch Chunk called itself the "Switzerland of America." John Jacob Astor and his bride honeymooned there, several Presidents stayed in the town, and Teddy Roosevelt once praised the beauty of Mauch Chunk in a speech. But the millionaires were long gone by 1953, hard coal having been replaced by petroleum. Nothing typified the lost prosperity of the town better than the fate of the Switchback railroad, which was sold for scrap to the Japanese in 1937. "We got it all back at Pearl Harbor" is a favorite line around Weiksner's.

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