The drive down to the Lehigh River is not steep, but it extends seven miles, starting at Summit Point, which for all practical purposes, is the top of the world. I mean, you know you're way, way up there in the Poconos; look all around you, and there are no peaks. And isn't the grid of roads up there mildly convex, as you'd expect on a mountaintop?
A couple of early steep, sharp turns, and your descent is on, unbroken and more-or-less straight. The road enters a gully in its final two miles, imperceptibly at first, nonetheless, embankments on right and left steadily rise. Then....a short string of row houses appear on your left, crammed between road's edge and embankment. Then another string on the right side. Then.....unbroken rows on both sides....they've wedged a town in here!
But if this is a gully, shouldn't there be rushing water? Ah....there it is, cascading down from the left, and a little further from the right, vanishing into a tunnel carved under the row of buildings. It must re-emerge someplace, yet I never discovered where.
The row buildings, right and left, steadily improve in appearance. They become colorful boutiques, artist dens, eateries, and general stores. The final block widens out, enough to allow angled parking, and the row buildings to the left sandwich a grand inn, but all the while this is a one-street sliver of a town. Oh...alright...toward the bottom, they somehow slip in one parallel alleyway, to the right and a bit elevated, but it hasn't even room for its own set of right and left dwellings. On one side fronts a sandstone row of trendy shops; on the other, the backs of buildings from the main drag.
Down here the widened street and it's narrow companion end in tees onto rt 209. Beyond is the train station, the tracks, the Lehigh river, the walkway, and another steep mountain. You're in the town of Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania. An odd name for a town, don't you think? But when you consider the original name, Mauch Chunk, perhaps you'll think JT an improvement. Mauch Chunk is the Lenni Lenape word for “sleeping bear;” a native American term that no one except the Lenni Lenape will understand. Jim Thorpe is a native American term that everyone will understand. Descendant of a chief of the Sac and Fox nation, Thorpe attended the nearby Carlisle Indian Industrial School, where he mastered any sport he turned his attention to: basketball, lacrosse, tennis, handball, bowling, swimming, hockey, boxing, and gymnastics. “Show them what an Indian can do,” his father charged him when he went off to represent the United States at the 1912 Stockholm Oympics. There, he won so many metals, in such a variety of events, that Sweden's King Gustov V gushed “Sir, you are the greatest athlete in the world!” “Thanks, King,” the unassuming man replied. For years thereafter, he played major league baseball and football, concurrently. ABC's Wide World of Sports, in 2001, named him the greatest athlete of the 20th century.
Just behind and well above that aforementioned grand inn, up the steep hill, is the 1860 home built for Asa Packer. It's an ornate, three-story mansion open for tours, so of course, Mrs Sheepandgoats and I took one. Asa Packer came from Connecticutt (on foot) in 1833 and made his fortune, first as a canal boat operator, and then as founder of the LeHigh railroad. The idea was to transport the area's coal to the great cities on the East Coast. It made him the third wealthiest man in the country. From his front porch, peer over the inn to see the courthouse he built, where he served as judge, the church he built where he served as vestryman, and the sandstone buildings where he housed his employees. Today, those sandstone buildings contain eateries, studios, and trendy stores. At one time, nineteen of the country's 26 millionaires maintained seasonal homes in Mauch Chunk. One of the ten coolest small towns in America, declared Budget Travel Magazine in 2007. Asa Packer's words are on display just in front of his house: “There is no distinction to which any young man may not aspire, and with energy, diligence, intelligence, and virtue, obtain.”
Mrs Sheepandgoats and I didn't stay in his town during our Poconos trip, however. We stayed 20 miles upstream in Stoddartsville, the town of a would-be industrialist to whom fortune was not so kind. Stoddartsville shows up on the map, but if you go there, you'll find only the foundations of some 200 year old buildings. And simple signs erected by the Stoddartsville Historical Society labeling what once stood on each foundation. And a graveyard whose worn tombstones reveal several Stoddarts are buried there. And a few private residences built on some of those ancient foundations. And a small rustic cabin overlooking the Lehigh....that's where we stayed.
John Stoddart was ambitious, too, just like Asa Packer. He also sought to harness the Lehigh, so as to ship grain downstream to Philadelphia, in order to divert commerce from a neighboring system that sent it to Baltimore.....this was to be a “win-lose,” not a “win-win”. He built a community straddling the Lehigh along the Wilkes-Barre Turnpike (which he controlled) with grist mill, saw mill, boat-building capacity, and so forth. It flourished in the early 1800's, (a bit before Packer's time) but alas, Stoddart was too far upstream. The best he could do with his river was provide one-way traffic, utilizing a series of dams which held back waters until they reached flood stage, and then, releasing them all at once, his barges could ride the crest downstream to the next dam! Boats were constructed in Stoddartsville and dismantled at destination, the timber sold along with the cargo. It wasn't cost-effective enough to compete with later “two-way” systems, and John Stoddart eventually went bankrupt, his town fading in prominence. He spent the final thirty years of his life a clerk in Philadelphia.
There's a third character, a Quaker businessman by the name of Josiah White, who touches on the fortunes of both Packer and Stoddart. To Packer, he brought success, but to Stoddart, ruin. Stoddart might have gone under in any case, but White sealed his fate. White's endeavor was canal-building, and it was canal piloting that enabled Asa Packer to amass capital sufficient to build his railroad. Back in Mauch Chunk, just before the railroad station (which is now a tourist information center) lies a town square named after Josiah White. It was he who founded the town, before Packer ever traipsed in from Connecticut.
Ironically, Josiah White's canal ventures owe a lot to John Stoddart's initial support. In the early days of the Lehigh Navigation Company, White tried in vain to raise money from comfortable, conservative, downstream Philadelphia merchants. They were loathe to part with it. White realized he needed the backing of one man, John Stoddart, who (per White's memiors) “was then a leading man among the Mound characters, being esteemed Luckey [sic] and to never mis'd in his Speculations, carried a strong influence with his actions, he being of an open and accessible habit, gave us frequent opportunities with him, & his large Estates at the head of our Navigation, authorized our beseaging [sic] him, which we did frequently." Sure enough, as soon as word got out that Stoddart had invested $5000.00 (with the stipulation that the navigation system begin in Stoddartsville) everyone jumped on board, and the entire hoped-for sum of $100,000 was raised in 24 hours! White began building two-way locks on the Lehigh, but that summer (1819) was unusually dry, and the river proved too shallow for transport. The following winter, ice damaged the locks to the point that White replaced them with the aforementioned one-way “bear-trap” locks, (the locks in no way resembled bear traps, but White's workmen named them so to dispose of incessant pesky “whatcha building?” passerby) the economics of which ultimately sealed John Stoddart's doom....not to mention, destroying the fishing upon which various Native Americans and missionaries depended.
Roaming the Pennsylvania hills where these long-dead men once maneuvered, it's hard to escape the feeling that if you had switched them...put Stoddart where Packer was, and vice versa....the results would have been the same. Both were subject to time and unforeseen circumstances, which might have easily gone the other way. If the Lehigh had behaved that first year of Stoddart's transport system, or if Packer had been subject to a clobbering winter or two, (he went way out on a limb financially in his railroad building) it might be Stoddart's name that is remembered instead of Packer's. That is....as much as any person is remembered. For, successful as he was, I knew nothing about Packer before stumbling upon his home town....did you? Even though he was the third richest man in the country. Doesn't matter. We all end up in the grave, where memory of us quickly fades.
For whatever reason, I vividly remember Brother Benner, the District Overseer, playing devil's advocate with his own argument - an argument drawn from Ecclesiastes about the brevity of life, and its consequent “futility.” Build as you may, you're not around to reap too much benefit from your work. In Ecclesiastes, Solomon reflects upon the “hard work at which I was working hard under the sun, that I would leave behind for the man who would come to be after me. And who is there knowing whether he will prove to be wise or foolish? Yet he will take control over all my hard work at which I worked hard and at which I showed wisdom under the sun.” (2:18-19) This nearly happened in the case of Packer's enormous wealth, after the untimely deaths of his sons. Business associates threatened to squander it all, so Asa's daughter Mary maneuvered to gain control of the family fortune. To that end, she had to marry, since unmarried women back then were never left the estate (even though Mary had nursed both parents through their deaths). She married some obliging business fellow or other, secured the dough, and the marriage ended soon thereafter. Was that the plan from the start? At any rate, as we toured the Packer mansion, the guide pointed to a prominently displayed plaque of St Fabiola, the patron saint of divorced women. (no, I didn't know there was such a saint, either. Must she not need a lot of helpers today, like Santa needs his elves?)
Anyhow, back to Benner, he was discussing the verse 1:11, a recurring theme of Ecclesiastes: “There is no remembrance of people of former times, nor will there be of those also who will come to be later.” We, who were initially created to live forever on earth, are now subject to that sad reality. He spoke of how someone might attempt to counter the verse, for example, pointing to some musician or other: “Yes, so-and-so may have died,” they would say, “but his music lives on and on.” “Give me a break!” Benner responded. “Who was the most famous singer in George Washington's day?” Exactly.
Same thing with Mauch Chunk. Who were the other 18 millionaires who made their home there? Or, for that matter, what about Jim Thorpe, the town's later namesake? What became of him after his athletic days? (alas, for all his fame, he fell upon very hard times) You will remember....imperfectly....a few of the generation before you, and perhaps even a handful of the generation before that, but everyone else is, at best, a name in a stats book, like Packer or Stoddart. Some won. Some lost. But you don't know anything about them.
The brevity or our life is what really defines it. You don't get too many shots. There's a built-in frustration, since every door we open represents several we have closed. Pathways take a while to trod. The more ambitious the pathway, the longer it will take, and the fewer you'll trod. Each pathway we go down represents a multitude we don't go down. And yet, we want to go down them all. Is this what Solomon meant about life being “calamity?” Today's age of specialization makes the calamity even more pronounced. Increase your wisdom or wealth, as Solomon did, and you increase the pathways you can pursue. But, alas, you increase perception of the many more you won't pursue before the clock runs out.
It wasn't meant to be so, and it will not be so one day in the future. Humans, created to live forever but now relegated to a few score of years, are yet to have opportunity for everlasting life. And all these characters of the past....not to mention our own family members...are they to be among the “righteous and the unrighteous” who come out of the memorial tombs, per Acts 24:15, and John 5:28? It's the Bible's hope. It intrigued me from the beginning. It still does, though one must stoke the hope occasionally so that static from this present dismal system of things doesn't drown it out. As Jesus said: “when the Son of man arrives, will he really find the faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8)