Cumberland Gap Highway Tunnel Celebrates 15th Anniversary

Cumberland Gap Tunnel

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News Release Date: October 11, 2011

Contact: visitor center, (606) 248-2817, extension 1075

Reception to Showcase "Drive into the Future, Restore the Past"

The opening of the Cumberland Gap Highway Tunnel on October 18th, 1996 forever changed the face of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (NHP). The asphalt, where 25E passed through the Cumberland Gap, is gone. So too is the traffic. All that remains is the Gap - and a six foot wide trail - almost as Daniel Boone knew it. Visitors to Cumberland Gap NHP are now able to walk in the footsteps of Colonel Boone himself and the nearly 300,000 pioneers who journeyed through the nation's first doorway to the west.

A reception at the national park visitor center on October 18th, 2011 will celebrate the 15th anniversary of the opening of the tunnel. Through photo exhibits, the showing of the film "The Cumberland Gap Tunnel" and with historical re-enactors mingling with park visitors, the reception will showcase the tunnel's motto "Drive into the Future, Restore the Past." The reception will be from 11:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and is open to the public.

Park Superintendent Mark Woods reflects upon the multiagency effort spanning more than two decades to open the most modern vehicle tunnel in the world and to take a landscape 220 years back in time. "In 1908, 20th-century modernization came to the mountains in the form of a Federal demonstration project by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Public Roads. One of several 'Object Lesson Roads' designed to prove the efficacy of new road building techniques, a 2.5 mile ribbon of crushed, compacted, and rolled limestone highway was constructed through Cumberland Mountain to link the towns of Middlesboro, KY, and Cumberland Gap, TN."

"As the number of vehicles and commercial traffic using the paved road grew, so did the danger. Before long, this section of U.S. Highway 25E was saddled with yet another - but tragic - nickname: Massacre Mountain."

"In 1940, Congress established Cumberland Gap National Historical Park to preserve the natural gap, or low point, on Cumberland Mountain because of its national significance in the early years of American westward expansion. Part of the dream for the park was to remove the highway and restore the Cumberland Gap and Wilderness Road to its 1780-1810 appearance."

Woods knows the history of the tunnel intimately and further explains that the restoration of the Cumberland Gap began in 1973 with the signing of a law directing the National Park Service to construct tunnels through Cumberland Mountain in order to remove traffic from the historic corridor traversed by U.S. Highway 25E for more than 50 years.

According to Woods, two objectives were detailed in the legislation: restore the historic appearance of the Gap and Wilderness Road and improve traffic safety for motorists. Through a combined planning, design, and construction effort led by the National Park Service and the Federal Highway Administration, the project would ultimately cost $265 million and include:

• rerouting 2 U.S. highways

• twin 4,600-foot tunnels

• 5 miles of new 4-lane approaches to the tunnels

• 2 highway interchanges

• 7 roadway bridges - 4 in Kentucky and 3 inTennessee

• a 200-foot railroad bridge (a steel box girder type recognized by the American Institute of Steel construction for design excellence)

• repair and reuse of an abandoned railroad tunnel under existing U.S. Highway 25E to house numerous utilities and serve as a part of a greenway trail system

• 2 pedestrian bridges on hiking trails

• 4 new parking areas inside the park

With the project authorized in 1973, the process of creating design alternatives and construction plans began. The 1978 Federal Highway Act brought the first funding for tunnel construction. Project design work started in 1979 and construction in 1985 on a pilot tunnel 10-feet wide, 10-feet high, and 4,100-feet long drilled from both sides of the mountain. The pilot tunnel took 2 years to drill and revealed the geologic and hydrologic challenges facing the project - springs that would produce 450 gallons of water every minute regardless of the weather, voids with thick clay infills, caverns as tall as 85 feet, and a lake of water 30-feet deep.

To keep the tunnels dry, each is lined with a waterproof PVC membrane that is covered with a 10-inch-thick concrete lining. Groundwater drains into a stream that empties into Little Yellow Creek within the park. Water from the caverns flows through a 5-foot-diameter steel pipe under the roadway and into the cavern on the opposite side of the tunnel. During construction, daily water quality monitoring was required; today water flow is monitored in the tunnel's Kentucky control room.

With the opening of the tunnels to traffic in October 1996, the dangerous section of U.S. Highway 25E was closed to the more than 18,000 vehicles that daily passed through the historic park. Today, the tunnels carry more than 11 million vehicles annually, or approximately 32,000 cars per day.

Woods also acknowledges the incredible relationship which the national park has with the states of Kentucky and Tennessee in the operation of the tunnel. "While the National Park Service owns the tunnel, we've turned the operation over to Kentucky and Tennessee; their diligence has made for safe passage for millions of travelers. We also commend Tunnel Manager John Burke and the tunnel staff. Due to the cleanliness of the tunnel and its impeccable upkeep, park visitors, almost daily, comment that they thought the tunnel was recently built."

Frequently walking the restored trail through the Cumberland Gap, Woods recounts that his most cherished walk was with Dr. Thomas Clark, Historian Laureate of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, several years before Clark's death. Dr. Clark had identified the Gap as one of eleven sites within the Commonwealth that every Kentuckian should visit. "Dr. Clark expressed to me that his dream was to walk in the Gap in the footsteps of Boone and in the absence of any vehicle traffic. Dr. Clark's dream came true and so too did the 60-year old dream of the National Park Service and Congress. I can only imagine a hundred years from now when our descendents are walking through the Gap in our footsteps. History continues to unfold in the nation's first doorway to the west. The Cumberland Gap Tunnel and Gap restoration stories are truly ones to behold."

Information on the reception, which is being co-hosted by the Cumberland Gap Tunnel Authority and the Bell County (KY) Chamber of Commerce, is available by calling the park visitor center at 606-248-2817, extension 1075.


Last updated: April 14, 2015

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Middlesboro, KY 40965


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