Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Jim Thorpe: Six Feet Under

Once he was called the greatest athlete who ever lived.  Now, he's a roadside attraction in a town he never visited.  The story of Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe and how he came to be entombed in a small Pennsylvania village is a fascinating one.

Jim Thorpe was born Wa-tho-huck, or "Path Lit Up at Night by a Bolt of Lightning," on May 22, 1887.  He was born to a Native American couple on the Sac and Fox Reservation in the Oklahoma Territory.  Even as a young man, he showed great athletic prowess, which he demonstrated on the football field at Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania.  In a now infamous game against West Point, Thorpe and his team defeated halfback and future president Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Thorpe competed in the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden.  There he became the only Olympian to ever win the gold medal in both the Pentathlon and Decathlon.  Sweden's King Gustav proclaimed "Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world," to which Thorpe only replied "Thanks, King."

After a long and successful career, which included a stint as the first president of the National Football League, Thorpe passed away in 1953.  And here's where things got weird.

The town of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania was in dire economic straights.  Needing a tourist attraction to boost the local economy, the town appealed to the Thorpe family, asking that Jim be interred there.  Strangely, the family agreed, on the condition that the town re-christen itself Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.  And that's exactly what they did.

Jim's connection to the town, if any, is iffy at best.  While he had heritage in Pennsylvania, it has not been conclusively proven that he ever set foot there.

There are two statues on the site, depicting both his football and Olympic careers.

The casket itself is adorned with a series of illustrations depicting Thorpe's achievement across the athletic field.

Can't make it to Western Pennsylvania?  Take a 360-degree aerial tour of the site here.  Mute the audio though.

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