Located on the western end of Jim Thorpe, you’ll find one of the most popular historic sites in the Pocono Mountains: the Old Jail Museum.
The Old Jail Museum, known during its operating years as the Carbon County Jail, housed inmates from 1870 until 1995. Soon after it closed, the jail was opened for public tours and has been open to visitors ever since.
The Carbon County Jail is a beautiful castle-like structure that was designed by Edward Haviland, the son of John Haviland who designed the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. It features 27 cells, a warden’s house, a basement dungeon, and more within the structure.
Touring the jail has been near the top of my list of things to do in PA for many years and is one of the most popular things to do in Jim Thorpe, so I was excited to finally have a chance to visit in the late summer of 2022.
Tours of the jail leave regularly and, on high-traffic weekend days, can be quite busy. In fact, tickets sometimes sell out hours before the doors are closed, so make sure to arrive early to get your tickets as they are only sold in the gift shop.
Tours of the Old Jail Museum last around 30 minutes and are roughly divided into three parts: a video, the main cell block, and the dungeon. After the tour, visitors can then explore the cell block and some of the side areas of the jail at their own pace. All told, most visitors will spend around 45 minutes here once their tour stars.
The jail’s video is about 10 minutes long and offers an overview of the history of the jail, and, in particular, the Molly Maguires.
The Molly Maguires were a secret society of Irish coal miners who were trying to fight for better and safer working conditions. In 1877-1879, six of them were hung in this jail on (very likely) trumped-up charges.
The video, as well as a good portion of the tour cover this interesting labor history from the region.
While the video is very well done, the TV that it plays on is a bit on the small side. The sound could also be improved, especially since the narrator speaks in a thick Irish accent. While I don’t think she is inherently hard to understand, the somewhat low volume combined with the accent means that you have to pay careful attention to understand everything in the video.
Hopefully, they will get a somewhat larger TV and a better sound system in the future to improve the experience in this portion of the tour.
Once the video is finished, guides take you into the main portion of the jail. This part of the tour includes both the main floor of the cell block and the dungeon that’s in the basement, with the exact order varying depending on the other tours that are going on at the time.
The dungeon is located in the basement directly below the main cell block and is where prisoners were housed in solitary confinement from the earliest days of the prison until the 1980s.
The area is quite dark, though a few small lights provide a bit of illumination in the main room. Having your cell phone flashlight with you will help you see into the actual cells in this portion of the museum.
While down here, guides offer a bit of history about this area, and both how and why prisoners were held in this area. It definitely didn’t sound like a fun place to find yourself.
The main cell block of the Old Jail Museum is a two-story room that features more than 20 cells.
In the center of the space, a recreated gallows sits on the exact spot where six of the Molly Maguires were hung in the 1870s. Guides offer a lot of history about this area, both related to the Molly Maguires and to other stories from the history of the jail.
Even having visited many other historic jails around PA (such as SCI Cresson and the Old Jail in Bradford County) I found the stories here to be very interesting.
Once the guide is done offering a bit of history, visitors are allowed to explore the cell block, as well as some of the other areas of the jail.
While I really enjoyed looking in the cells, some of which had furniture to showcase what it would have been like to have been an inmate there, the most interesting cell is #17.
In this cell, it is said that there is a mysterious handprint that was left by one of the Molly Maguires as he proclaimed his innocence just prior to his execution. According to local lore, despite this area being painted over several times, his ghostly handprint remains.
While this is likely nothing more than a local legend, it’s still an interesting story, and the dark spot on the wall does appear to be a handprint.
Unfortunately, you can’t enter the cell, which means that you can only view it from a few feet away and from the side. You also aren’t allowed to take photos of it, but you can purchase images of it in the gift shop or see a large photo of it on display at the nearby Mauch Chunk Museum (where my photo above comes from).
The other areas of the museum that you can explore at your own pace include the upper levels of the warden’s house (which at the time of my visit contained only empty rooms), the visitation area, the prison kitchen, and the women’s jail.
These are all interesting spaces to check out briefly, though the main interest of visiting, in my opinion, is the main cell block and the dungeon.
Overall, I really had a fabulous time touring the Old Jail Museum in Jim Thorpe, PA. While the presentation of the video could use a bit of work, the tour itself is great, and I really enjoyed seeing this historic jail.
So, the next time you are exploring Carbon County, PA, make sure to stop at the Old Jail Museum in Jim Thorpe.
A Couple of Notes about Visiting
There are two additional things I wanted to make note of for visiting.
First of all, other than a few handicapped parking spots in their lot, there is no nearby parking. When visiting, you’ll need to pay to park in the lower portion of town near the train station and walk to the Old Jail. It’s about a half-mile walk from the train station to the museum and is slightly uphill.
Also, despite having handicapped parking, there is no easy access into the historic building for those with mobility issues. However, if you can handle a few steps, you can at least see the main portion of the building.
It’s also worth a quick reminder that tickets are only available for purchase in person in the jail’s gift shop on the day of your tour. There is no pre-purchasing or online/phone purchasing of tickets.
On busy weekends, tours will sometimes sell out a few hours before they close for the day. I highly recommend visiting as close to opening as possible to make sure that you can get a ticket and to make sure that your wait time is minimal.
Looking for more places to visit nearby? Check out the Lehigh Gorge Scenic Railway, the No. 9 Coal Mine Tour, the abandoned Turn Hole Tunnel, and the Asa Packer Mansion Museum.
Old Jail Museum
Hours: Open late May – October
Cost: Adults: $11, Children: $6
Address: 128 W Broadway