It took two centuries and millions of dollars to improve on Daniel Boone’s route through the Cumberland Gap. For years, the portion of US 25E that crossed from Tennessee into Kentucky followed the path of the old Wilderness Road as it skirted the tip of southwestern Virginia, passed along the rocky face of Cumberland Mountain, and cut through the Gap—the notch in the mountain wall near the point where Tennessee, Virginia, and Kentucky intersect. Then it descended into the valley of Yellow Creek just across the Kentucky state line.
It worked well for a pioneer footpath, but as an automobile route it presented a couple of problems. For one thing, paving over the old Wilderness Road obviously made it very difficult to appreciate the way this critical passage looked when tens of thousands of settlers used it to head to the West.
Cumberland Gap from the Tennessee side. The old highway passed along the mountainside just to the right of the opening. From an NPS publication, reprinted from TN Historical Quarterly
Second, since it ran along the mountain face, the highway was treacherous. If you happened to veer off the road, you could easily go plummeting down into the town of Cumberland Gap, TN at the mountain’s base. Quite a few motorists had done just that over the years. Locals sometimes referred to it as “Massacre Mountain.”
This combined need for safety and preservation resulted in one of the largest engineering projects this area has ever seen, a four-lane, two-way tunnel bored completely through the mountain not far from the Gap itself.
The north entrance to the Cumberland Gap Tunnel. The historic pass would be roughly half a mile to the viewer's left. From Wikimedia Commons
When the tunnel opened, the old portion of the highway across the mountain closed. The Park Service tore up the pavement and began restoring that part of the Wilderness Road route to its pioneer-era appearance. Now it’s one of the walking trails at Cumberland Gap National Historical Park; you can literally walk in Boone’s footsteps, along the side of the mountain and right into the Saddle of the Gap, along what used to be a busy roadway. (Click here to see a map of both the trail/old highway route and the new tunnel route.)
I was in high school when the tunnel opened. My school was just a short distance from the Gap, almost within sight of the pinnacle of Cumberland Mountain. We all got out of class that afternoon to attend the opening ceremony, seated with the other spectators in folding chairs facing the tunnel’s Kentucky side. The governors of the three states spoke, as did various other local dignitaries. Lee Greenwood sang “God Bless the USA,” there was a brief historical lecture, and a good time was had by all.
For the grand finale, a procession of reenactors marched out of the tunnel, depicting all those who had passed through the Gap: Indians, then long hunters, then pioneers, then Civil War soldiers. It was a flesh-and-blood, live-action version of Frederick Jackson Turner’s poetic summation of the Gap’s importance to the westward movement: “Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the procession of civilization, marching single file— the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer—and the frontier has passed by.” The reenactors’ march out of the tunnel embodied Turner’s belief that the frontier consisted of stages of development, one following another in inevitable progression, and that the Gap was one of the places where this process played out.
Unconsciously, it also exemplified something that’s always bothered me about the way we remember and interpret the Gap, and indeed about the way we remember and interpret many historic places. The emphasis was on the people who were just passing through it. Migrating buffalo, Indians on the warpath, hunters on their way to the bluegrass, pioneer farmers on their way to new land, Civil War soldiers on their way to invade either North or South (the Gap changed hands four times during the war)—they were all from somewhere else, and going to some other destination. Everything around it, meaning the area where I grew up and have lived most of my life, was just an indistinct blur.
Once I got older and acquired an interest in history, I was a little appalled that I had spent much of my life just a few minutes’ drive from one of the most important places in America and had never really given it much thought. So I picked up a copy of The Wilderness Road by Robert Kincaid, the inaugural volume in a series of books on historic travel routes originally published by Bobbs-Merril in 1947. Like me, Kincaid had spent quite a bit of time in the Gap’s shadow; he held a number of posts at Lincoln Memorial University, just a stone’s throw from the Gap, and he eventually became the college’s president.
Kincaid’s book probably remains the most comprehensive examination of the Gap and the route of which it was a part, from the earliest European contacts through the first part of the twentieth century. Dr. Thomas Walker, Daniel Boone, the Civil War armies, the post-war British industrialists who founded the towns surrounding the mountain—they’re all there, marching across the pages just as they had marched across Turner’s imagination and then out of the newly opened tunnel in reenacted form. In that sense, the book is comprehensive; it gives you an overview of all the hubbub that went on in this part of southwestern Virginia, eastern Tennessee, and southeastern Kentucky for the past couple of hundred years.
But the hubbub is basically all you get. Kincaid’s book, like the tunnel pageant, is very episodic. Each chapter is devoted to some notable incident or group of incidents. Explorers, hunters, pioneers, soldiers, and industrialists saunter onstage, do their bit, and then saunter back off. What was going on between all this migrating, invading, and exploiting? Where were the people who actually lived here?
It’s not that this context would necessarily be more interesting than some of the highlights in the history of the region. In fact, it’s hard to beat this corner of the world for dramatic incidents and wonderful stories—the gruesome murder of Boone’s son when the famous pathfinder tried to lead a party through the Gap in 1773, the escape of General George Morgan’s besieged garrison from the pass in 1862, or the creation of a short-lived industrial and resort enterprise which flourished for only a few years before vanishing entirely in the 1890’s. Still, these occasions when the world came crashing in on the Gap region don’t, in and of themselves, constitute its complete history.
There is a natural tendency, especially among older or popularized history books, to focus solely on those occasions in which “something happened.” History then becomes a simple series of events. To be fair, this part of Appalachia wasn’t too heavily settled until after a lot of the more favorable lands to the east and the north were taken up, so there wouldn’t have been too much to cover besides the migrants passing by for those earliest years. But by the early 1800’s, this region began to have a history of its own. You don’t get much of that in many accounts of the Gap.
The region in which the Gap is located might have something to do with it. An early commentator referred to Appalachians as “contemporary ancestors,” meaning that people in this region lived for many years in a kind of static state of preservation, exactly as the pioneers who passed along the Wilderness Road to greener pastures had once lived. It wasn’t true, of course, but the idea caught on and has become one of the most widespread and persistent of Appalachian stereotypes. If you buy into it, then it makes sense to ignore the broader regional context, because you’d essentially be assuming that the region didn’t really have a history of its own.
It reminds me of the concept in evolutionary biology known as “punctuated equilibrium.” in which species change during occasional fits and starts, with longer periods of stasis in between. If you assume that things are just puttering along as usual, then why bother? You might as well ignore the stasis altogether.
I’m not denying that the more dynamic periods of history merit disproportionate attention, so I don’t intend this to be a criticism of historians in general. Nor do I intend it to be a criticism of Kincaid’s book in particular. It’s a valuable distillation of information about this area that I’m very glad to have in one volume. Besides, he was writing at a time before many of these issues became problematic. Anyone interested in the history of Cumberland Gap in particular or Appalachia in general owes him a debt of gratitude. (Besides, he and I have the same alma mater, so I’ve got his back.)
It’s just that the backdrop to that procession of long hunters, pioneer migrants, Civil War soldiers, and New South industrialists is my homeland, and I wish I knew as much about the folks who lived here as I do about the ones who were just passing through.