It's been a few years since my last trip on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway. I missed it again this year. The sound of the train whistle while the train is moving through the fall landscape is magical.
My son loves trains, so he was excited. When he was much younger (and shorter), we often visited the New Hope and Ivyland Railroad (especially when Thomas was visiting) and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. We travelled to New Hope, Pennsylvania, a lot when he was in pre-school because I was out of work for nine months in 2001. We had a lot of father-son time.
Last year when my friend, Ed Velez, mentioned that he loved trains and suggested I take a ride from Port Clinton, PA to the historic town of Jim Thorpe on the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, I put the date on my calendar. Ed had ridden the train two years prior. I knew the experience was well recommended, so I bought my tickets in later summer for the October diesel autumn leaf excursion. The tours were sold out, so I can only assume this is a favourite activity.
I was excited about this trip, and I hope this excitement is captured in my writing. A while ago, while out on one of many photos walks, I got into a conversation about the historic towns of New Hope, Lambertville, and Frenchtown along the Delaware River between New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I don't remember the details, but I do remember a woman recommended that I visit Jim Thorpe. She was from the town and gushed about how much I would enjoy photographing the town. I remember going home and clicking through the many beautiful images I found on Flickr. Stunning. I think the topic of Jim Thorpe came up because this woman had seen one of my holiday pictures taken during a snow storm over Frenchtown. In any case, I was determined that someday I would make it out to Jim Thorpe for photography.
As the day of the excursion approached, I grew a bit nervous. The leaves in my town had already started to yellow and redden. I was concerned that the foliage along the train tracks would be brown and dull by the time we took our trip.
I planned out every detail of our trip, including when and where to eat lunch, what streets to walk, and which building to photograph. I wanted to capture the feeling of a small European village. I didn't want to carry a lot of gear, but I wanted to be sure I could have enough coverage for wide scenes and group portraits. Bringing my Nikon 35mm f/1.8, 85mm f/1.8 and 18-55mm f/3.5-5.6 would have added a lot of weight to my camera bag. I rented a Nikon 16-80mm f/2.8-4E ED AF-S DX VR. It's one of Nikon's newest lens. It's versatile enough to capture most of what I may see while touring Jim Thorpe. The rest of the camera bag will be filled with lens wipes; an iPhone flash mounted tripod, an extra battery and a camera remote.
We left our home around 6:45 AM and arrived at Port Clinton around 8:30 AM. Ed texted me his location on the train, but we first had to work out an issue with tickets. The issue? We didn't have our tickets. I thought that perhaps they had forgotten to send them to me. The ticket booth person insisted that they had been mailed out weeks before. It was only after returning home that night and looking around that I found them in the filing folder. Fortunately, I had kept a copy of the receipt in the car. The ticket booth attendant issued handwritten tickets so we could board the train.
Our train had both red and blue standard coach cars. We rode in one of the red coach cars, which, according to the website, was built in 1917. Our seats were comfortable. Ed had arrived early and snagged a window seat that can be opened or closed. These coaches also have restrooms.
The train was filled. I enjoyed chatting with Ed and my family as the train pulled through one historical small town after the other. Our train host called out the names of the towns and a quick history lesson on each as the train slowly made its way to Jim Thorpe.
I saw the beautiful colours of fall while the train crossed the High Bridge through Hometown. Our train travelled along Lake Hauto. Ed and I opened the windows so we could stick our cameras outside. The air was crisp and sweets. If we had taken the steam train ride, I am sure the smell would have added an even more nostalgic feel to the experience.
It was a challenge for me to keep the camera steady while shooting out the window of a moving train. I had a slight pang of dread at the idea of my camera popping out of my hand and falling into the valley below. The High Bridge is 168 feet tall and 1,000 feet long. Thank goodness for hand-straps.
Two hours later, our train pulled into the Central Railroad of New Jersey Station at Jim Thorpe.
Arriving in Jim Thorpe
Before being renamed to honour legendary athlete James Francis Thorpe, the town was formerly known as Mauch Chunk. Mauch Chunk is a Leni Lenape Indian name that means "Bear Mountain." The train pulled into the middle of town, and we could see the mountains all around us as the train pulled into the station.
We disembarked at Jim Thorpe Station and walked toward the station building. On January 1, 1976, The Central Railroad of New Jersey Station, also known as the Jersey Central Station and Jim Thorpe Station, was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The station was designed by Wilson Brothers & Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and built in 1888.
There were vendors outside selling baked goods which reminded me that I planned to eat at Stone Row on Race Street. I had contacted the restaurant a few weeks earlier and promised to be first in line when they opened at 11:30 AM. I corralled the “troops”, and we made our way toward and up Race Street.
I wanted to stop at the Big Creek Vineyard and Hooven Mercantile Co Museum, but we were in a rush.
We made our way up — Race Street is slightly inclined — passing the St. Mark’s Episcopal Church. The church was designed by British-born American architect Richard Upjohn between 1867 and 1869 in the Gothic Revival style. Ed and I were slowly moving, snapping photos along the way. Stopping to take pictures is most likely what caused us to arrive late than expected at the front door of the Stone Row Pub.
Race Street is narrow — most of the streets in Jim Thorpe are narrow — with terraced gardens and door flags that made the street look like what I think a street in a small European might look like. The homes are a blend of Victorian architecture with quaint small street-front businesses. And electrical wires everywhere. I was not too fond of these electrical wires. To me, they ruined the look of the street. I wish they were all underground. But you won’t find many wires in my images. I took the effort to remove them in Photoshop. I know it doesn’t reflect the reality of Jim Thorpe, but I like these photos better.
We finally made it to the Stone Row Pub only to discover a line had formed just inside the doorway. It seems the Stone Row Pub is quite small, and all meals are “made-from-scratch”. It can seat only twenty people. Twenty people were already seated, and a quick count showed about ten people in line ahead of us. We were hungry after our two-hour ride on the train, so we opted for plan B, which we created "at the moment". We walked to the end of Race Street and found another place to eat.
We had lunch at a restaurant called Through the Looking Glass, on the corner of Race and Broad Streets near the Mauch Chunk Opera House. It is the older restaurant in Jim Thorpe. I think the restaurant's theme is loosely based on the Lewis Carol novel of the same name. I don’t know for sure.
While we waited for our food to arrive, we enjoyed the acoustic guitar music played by a local musician. After a quick breakfast — it was almost 12:30, but we had pancakes, eggs, toast, bacon, etc. — we made our way to the Mauch Chunk Opera House. I didn’t include photos of the opera house because … well, I only got one. It was very dark inside, and my attempt at HDR was not quite what I wanted.
We exited the Mauch Chunk Opera House and made our way slowly down Broad Street enjoying the windows of the quaint little shops. We stopped in at one place, House of Jerky, selling various exotic meat and vegetarian based jerky. Kangaroo and Shark?
I passed a couple sitting outside the Jim Thorpe National Bank. I did something that I seldom do. I asked if I could take their photo. Is it still street photography if I ask for permission? My only regret is not having a card to give them to contact me for the picture. I want to be better prepared for this.
We were past the Carbon County Court House, turned left onto Hazard Square, and walked up a steep set of stairs onto Packer Hill Avenue toward Asa Packer Mansion Museum. Who’s Asa Packer?
I didn’t get the shot of the Asa Packer museum that I wanted. I had this belief that I could somehow get a panoramic view of the house looking from higher up the hill. The reality is that the house is wedged in on a plot of land on the side of a steep hill, looking down onto the rooftops of the streets of Jim Thorpe.
I took some portrait shots of Bhavana and Shaan sitting on a metal bench chatting. While they chatted, I walked up to the entrance of the Asa Packer building and stood next to a statue of a deer dressed in holiday clothes. While admiring the deer's clothing, I looked up and saw somewhat appeared to be smoke in the distance near Race Street. While standing there looking down into town, I saw the light come over the hill and illuminate the church town. I quickly set up my tripod and captured my favourite photo of the day.
We walked back down Packer Hill Avenue to the train tracks on Lehigh Avenue. Ed and I wanted some photos of the trains. Ed knew that the High Bridge train would be returning soon, and we would get some shots of the train pulling into the station. Bhavana and Shaan split off to look for restrooms and to shop at the vendors we had seen earlier when our train stopped at the station.
The train tracks are where Ed and I spent most of our time snapping shots of the trains.
Bhavana and Shaan caught up with us just as our return train to Port Clinton pulled into the station.
On our way back, our train was delayed. The Lehigh Gorge Railway tracks and actually owned by a freight company. There was some miscommunication, and a freight train ended up on our track. Ed had a walkie-talkie, and we listened in on the conversations between our train crew, the station master, and the freight train conductor. It was highly entertaining. We had to wait for the freight train to back into a side track so that we could pass.
Once our train got started again, Ed and I opened the window to capture some of the images we could not capture on the outbound trip. Our train passes through an area that has two S curves. On the return trip, shooting out the window, we could get photos of the back and front of the train looping around the bend.
We were also much closer to the front of the train. I could hear the train whistle as we pushed through each town. Hooo Hooo! Hooo Hooo! God, I love that sound. I felt like a kid. I stuck my Nikon out the window to capture the sounds, but the whoosh of the window around the camera microphone was too loud.
When choosing images for this photo essay, I had difficulty deciding which ones to include. I chose over two dozen pictures and agonised over whether was too many. As I wrote this article, I realised that I was stressed about it probably meant I should follow my instinct. I decided that I would choose my favourites and just enough to tell the story. The rest you can view on my Flickr page.
For each image, I applied either a Fuji or Kodak film preset and adjusted as needed.
I enjoyed my trip to Jim Thorpe and would definitely do this again. I think I can convince Bhavana to spend a night over in Jim Thorpe. I clicked a link on the Lehigh Gorge Railway website to get more information about the bike train and discovered that we could do an day event called the Big Day Out, which includes biking, hiking and raft along the Lehigh Gorge in one day!
Shaan's fascination with "Thomas the Tank Engine" led us on a 2-hour journey to the Strasburg Railroad in Ronks, PA, a trip fueled by his enthusiasm for the beloved train character.
A Day Out with Thomas offers a unique experience for children and fans of Thomas the Tank Engine. This event features a full-sized operating steam locomotive, Thomas the Tank Engine, which takes guests on a 16-minute excursion. There was some disappointment about the duration of the Thomas and Percy rides.
Food and drinks, such as hot dogs, pretzels, and kettle corn, were available during the event, adding to the enjoyment even on a hot day in June. We did have the convenience of ducking into various stores to cool off, making the day pleasant.
Overall, A Day Out with Thomas at the Strasburg Rail Road offered fun and educational experiences.