While thousands of visitors go to Jim Thorpe, PA every weekend to explore, very few venture the two miles outside of the historic downtown area to see the grave of the town’s namesake, Jim Thorpe.
The story of how the grave of Jim Thorpe, one of the great athletes in American history, came to be in a town that he never visited in life but was renamed after him in death is quite a fascinating tale.
Read on to find out more about this history and for information on visiting the Jim Thorpe Memorial.
How Jim Thorpe Ended Up Buried in Pennsylvania
Jim Thorpe was born in Oklahoma in 1887 and was a member of the Sac and Fox Nation of Native Americans. His native name was Wa-Tho-Huk, which translates to “Bright Path”.
In 1904, Thorpe elected to attend the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. While not all Native American children who went there were given the option of whether or not to attend, it appears that Thorpe went of his own volition.
Once at the school, his athletic abilities came into focus and he shined in track-and-field and football and even won a national championship in ballroom dance. Thrope led the Carlisle team, led by legendary coach Pop Warner, to many impressive collegiate wins against the top teams in the country.
After being named a football All-American, Thorpe competed in the 1912 Olympics, winning two gold medals and having King Gustav V of Sweden call him the “greatest athlete in the world”.
If all of that isn’t enough, Thorpe would later play professional football, baseball, and basketball. He would eventually be voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and is widely considered the best athlete of the first half of the 20th century.
Thorpe died in California in 1953, and his funeral was held at St. Benedict’s Catholic Church in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
It was assumed that he would be buried in his hometown, however, Thorpe’s third wife got tired of waiting for a memorial to be built in Oklahoma and sent his body to the Carbon County, Pennsylvania communities of Mauch Chunk and East Mauch Chunk.
These communities were looking to revive tourism to the town which had been lost when their gravity railroad shut down. They agreed to not only build a memorial to Thorpe, but they would also merge and rename their town, Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania.
It is said that the community of Mauch Chunk also thought that having Thorpe buried in their town would lead to the Pro Football Hall of Fame being built there, but that instead was placed in Canton, Ohio. (Ironically, it part because it was the first place that Jim Thorpe played professional football.)
So, unbeknownst to his children, Thorpe’s body was taken by railroad to Pennsylvania, and the memorial in his honor was dedicated in 1957. There is no evidence to suggest that Jim Thorpe had ever visited this area during his life, but it remains his final resting spot decades later.
Over the years, Jim Thorpe’s children made attempts to return his remains to the family’s burial plot in Oklahoma. However, they were never successful, and a 2015 decision by the Supreme Court settled the matter. So, barring the community voluntarily returning his remains to the family (Which they probably should do, if we’re being honest), Thorpe will remain buried at this spot.
Visiting Jim Thrope’s Grave
The grave of Jim Thorpe is located on the outskirts of town several miles from the main downtown area where most visitors to Jim Thorpe spend their time.
At first glance, this seems like a weird location. However, one explanation I heard is that it was supposed to sit at the entrance to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which was never built here.
Ultimately, its location is likely one of the reasons why this isn’t a major tourist spot, which is ironic since that was the reason Thorpe was buried here in the first place. Still, its more isolated location does make it much more peaceful than it would have been in the heart of the touristy part of town.
If you want to visit the Jim Thorpe Memorial, it can be found along North Street (Route 903) north of town, at the following address: 1 Joe Boyle Circle, Jim Thorpe, PA 18229.
The monument is an impressive site, with several statues of Thorpe, a large marble sarcophagus, and some information signs that tell his story. Even seventy years after his death, the site is well-maintained and quite a beautiful spot to visit.
The statues here, one of Thorpe running with a football and one of him throwing a discus, are especially impressive as they are life-size and appear very life-like. There are also engravings of Thorpe playing various sports on his sarcophagus.
The sarcophagus also has the aforementioned quote from King Gustav V of Sweden, “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world.”
While the sarcophagus, statues, and landscape are all well maintained, I can’t say the same for the information signs nearby.
These signs do contain a great overview of Thorpe’s life, accomplishments, and legacy, and were clearly very nice when first installed. However, during my visits (most recently in September 2022), the signs were definitely showing their age and were a bit difficult to read.
Hopefully, these will be replaced with new signs (even with the same information) in the future.
Overall, whether you are a history buff or love sports, the grave of Jim Thorpe is a nice spot to visit when exploring this corner of the Poconos, and I definitely recommend making the short drive from downtown Jim Thorpe, PA to see the final resting place of the town’s namesake.