Some Spooky Imagineering Inspiration, Deep in the Pennsylvania Hills
Imagineering a new attraction is an incredibly complex and exciting process. It is one that encompasses art, technology and everything in between. When creating a new attraction and fitting into an often realistic-themed area, Imagineers do exhaustive research to make sure it fits seamlessly.
The most recent and one of the best examples of this is Expedition Everest. Joe Rhode and his team traveled the Himalayas to find details and inspiration to make their new e-ticket attraction look like it always belonged in its place at the Animal Kingdom. But this is not just a recent trend. Imagineers have been doing this since Disneyland first opened in 1955. When Walt Disney World opened, WDI needed to make its version of the Haunted Mansion fit in a new area.
Simply reproducing the exterior of the original California mansion would not work. It was themed to match New Orleans Square, and area not used at Walt Disney World. Instead, they needed it to fit inside Liberty Square, an area theme to colonial America. So they searched the original thirteen colonies for inspiration and came up with many sources. One of those sits high above the Lehigh River in a sleepy yet fascinating town called Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania
. It is the Harry Packer Mansion
, and it certainly fits the bill.
Up until 1953, the town was known as Mauch Chunk. The Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, a powerful player in one of the nation most influential industries, set up towns for miners within Carbon County in Pennsylvania. Mauch Chunk was one of those towns. It grew in industrial influence as a center for transporting coal throughout the 19th century. In the mid-1800’s Asa Packer, owner of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, made Mauch Chunk a critical stop along the line and even lived in the town. Many other railroad and coal barons and bigwigs came to call it home. As a result, the town contains some amazing architecture, much of it still stands.
But Mauch Chunk’s history doesn’t end with the tycoons of coal. It was also home to miners and their families. Many came from famine stricken Ireland to work in conditions that many could hardly imagine today. Violent uprisings resulted across the country. Probably the most well known of these incidents took place around Mauch Chunk and involved the famous Molly Maguires. It led to the hanging of ten men. Four of these men were executed in Mauch Chunk’s jail which still stands today. Before he was hung, one of the Molly Maguires proclaimed his innocence and placed his hand on the wall leaving a print behind. It is said that he declared the print would never leave as a sign of his innocence.
130 years later, the print is still there in cell 17. For decades, wardens tried to remove the print. Some washed it off, some painted over it, while some even removed the wall entirely and had it replaced. But no matter what they tried, the print returned. During all of this, the jail was closed to outsiders, as it was a working jail until 1995. Only now can tourists see this puzzling print for themselves.
Jim Thorpe, perhaps the greatest athlete in American history died in 1953. At the same time Mauch Chunk’s economy was struggling due to the decreasing influence of coal and the railroads in the area. Thorpe’s native Oklahoma was not interested in erecting a memorial that suited his widow. In an attempt to revitalize attention to the town, Mauch Chunk decided to erect a monument and rename their town in Thorpe’s honor. It is yet another peculiar tale in this great town’s history.
One can only assume that Disney Imagineers had all of this in their minds when they came across the Harry Packer Mansion. This haunting house was a wedding gift from railroad tycoon Asa Packer to his son. It is a gorgeous structure, but after years of weathering it has become almost spooky.
The Victorian details on the Harry Packer Mansion are what haunted houses are made of. You can see the similarity to the Magic Kingdom’s Haunted Mansion in the brickwork and details. But when you begin to notice the overgrowth, gothic ironwork, and ornate fixtures, you start to wonder if the ghosts are watching you.
The mansion is open as a bed and breakfast and even does dinner theater was well. It is a big part of the town’s terrific appeal and haunted feel. In the sleepy and often spooky Jim Thorpe, it sits high on a hill looking down onto the street with an eerily watchful glare.