Sunday, August 30, 2009

Historic Cumberland Gap

In the late summer of 1988 I headed off to college and drove through the Cumberland Gap for the first time by myself. I didn't realize at that time the number of occasions I would make the trip back and forth between Southern Indiana and East Tennessee, but I do fondly remember the encouragement I used to prompt my worn out 1980 Mustang up the Kentucky side of the mountain, past Cudjo's Cave, into a blink-and-miss-it part of Virginia, and then down the Tennessee side of the mountain. Only later would they design and build a tunnel through the gap that would make scaling it unnecessary. If they would have done that earlier it would have saved me lots of frustration being stuck behind countless semi-trucks.

I can only imagine what Dr. Thomas Walker must have thought as he first saw the Cumberland Gap in 1750. Back then, of course, there would have been no roads, no souvenir shops, and no man-made lakes. Walker had named the Cumberland River after Prince William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, and eventually other geographic features in the region, like the gap, took on the Cumberland name. Naturally, Indians were the first people to discover the gap. They had used the it for hundreds of years for hunting trips and warring adventures before Thomas Walker took credit for discovering it. Animals, many of which are no longer natural to the region, also used the gap as a natural migrating path. Eastern buffalo and elk moved in great herds and probably led the first Indians to and through the gap.

The Cumberland Gap was the path of least resistance to many settlers on their western quest for better opportunities. The Great Wagon Road that ran down the Shenandoah Valley to Southwest Virginia would eventually reach the Cumberland Gap, and then on into Kentucky when, in 1775, Daniel Boone and a crew trailblazers built the Wilderness Road which opened up the Bluegrass for settlement. During the years between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War the Cumberland Gap would see hundreds of thousands of people making their way to what would eventually become Kentucky (1792) and Tennessee (1796).

During the Civil War the strategic Cumberland Gap would be taken and retaken by the opposing sides a number of times. The gap proved to be a formidable position as far as a naturally defensive work, but its isolation was its downfall. If supplies lines were cut off to the gap, the defending forces had little choice other than surrender or starve. Soldiers in the armies of both the Union and Confederacy despised duty at the gap, particularly during winter and summer as trees were quickly cut for fuel and left the men little opportunity for additional firewood or shelter.

There are a number of songs about Cumberland Gap, some of which originated in the Civil War. One has these lyrics:
Lay down boys and take a little nap,
Lay down boys and take a little nap,
Lay down boys and take a little nap,
Fourteen miles to Cumberland Gap.

Cumberland Gap is a place of rocks,
home to the panther, the bear and fox.

Cumberland Gap is a noted place
Three kinds of water to wash your face.
The first white man in the Cumberland Gap
Was doctor Walker, an English Chap.

Cumberland Gap is fearsome place,
shells go off right in your face.
Daniel Boone on Pinnacle Rock,
Killed a bear with his old flintlock.

Lay down boys and take a little nap,
Lay down boys and take a little nap,
Lay down boys and take a little nap,
We're gonna raise hell in the Cumberland Gap.

After the Civil War the gap was used by industrial loggers and others fortune hunters to get at the region's rich natural resources. Improved roads and the rise of the automobile brought vacationing site seers to the gap in the early 20th century. Tourism has always been a popular attraction at the Cumberland Gap, and in the 1930s and 40s efforts were made to make the area into a national park. Cumberland Gap National Historic Park was finally dedicated on July 4, 1959.

At present over a million visitors a year visit this beautiful park and learn about its important place in American history.

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