Appalachian Cultural Resources Workshop Papers
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To the English settlers of North America the Appalachian Mountains formed an almost impenetrable geographic barrier. For almost 200 years these mountains, shrouded in mist, somber, and forbidding, restricted the colonies to the narrow confines of the Eastern Seaboard. Penetration of this barrier was made doubly difficult by the presence of the French and their native allies. The Northern and Mid-Atlantic colonies were too near the raids of hostiles and mechanizations of the French. A way was needed that not only was practicable, but also removed from direct confrontation with these competing interests.

Carved by wind and water, Cumberland Gap forms a major break in the Appalachian Mountain chain. Located at the point where the present states of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia converge, the Gap served as a passageway for large game animals in their migratory journeys. Native Americans following these game paths created a principle prehistoric trade and war route known as the Warriors Path. By the late 17th Century this route into the rich hunting lands of Kaintucke was known to only a handful of frontiersmen. It was not until 1750 that Dr. Thomas Walker, surveyor for the Loyal Land Company, became the first to explore, describe, and document the route to the Gap; which he named in honor of William, Duke of Cumberland, brother of King George II. In 1775 a little known longhunter named Daniel Boone was commissioned to blaze a road through the Gap for the Transylvania Company. Familiar with the region through prior exploratory trips and one unsuccessful attempt at settlement, Boone was part of the venture by Judge Richard Henderson to establish a proprietary colony. "Boones Trace" as this route was first called, evolved into the more familiar Wilderness Road, and established Boone's place in history as a frontiersman and pathfinder. During the dark and dangerous days of the Revolution, the settlements in Kentucky, headed by men like Boone and James Harrod, maintained a toehold in the wilderness, securing claim to the western lands for the young nation.

In the post-Revolutionary period, Cumberland Gap became the primary access route for continental expansion. Through the Gap passed a floodtide of settlers into the lands of the Midwest. A mere ten years after the end of the Revolution, Kentucky, unpopulated in 1775, became the 14th state boasting a population of 220,000. Though other routes were utilized, Cumberland Gap was the way West until the second quarter of the 19th Century.

From the end of the pioneer era to the coming of the Civil War, Cumberland Gap and the old Wilderness Road was a major economic thoroughfare. The commerce of the Southeast and Midwest flowed through the Gap in ever-increasing amounts. The use of the roadway and its strategic importance was not lost on either side during the Civil War. For the North, the Gap was a means of rendering relief to the loyal populations in East Tennessee and a natural invasion route into the heart of the Confederacy. To the South, possession of the Gap meant protection of the vital resources of Tennessee and, Southwestern Virginia as well as a route into the heartland of divided Kentucky. The Gap changed hands four times during the War. In the 20th Century, Cumberland Gap and its associated roadways continue to be a major economic artery for the Appalachian region. Modernization of the roadways began in 1909 with the completion of the Object Lesson Road, a Federal demonstration project by the Bureau of Public Roads. This road opened the Gap to commercial traffic. In the 1920s, the old Wilderness Road became Highways 25E and 58 allowing mechanized vehicles over the Gap.

Though long recognized by historians as an important landmark and symbol of westward expansion, it was not until 1937 that formal preservation efforts began. In that year a group of local citizens founded the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park Association. The Association began an intensive lobbying campaign in support of legislation to create a National Park at Cumberland Gap.

Their efforts were rewarded on June 11, 1940 with the signing of H.R. 9394 which authorized Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Formal establishment of the park was contingent on the acquisition of sufficient land and features (outlined in the legislation) by the states of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Because the lands necessary for the establishment of the park crossed three state boundaries, special provision had to be made to empower purchasing authority. A 1943 amendment to the authorizing bill allowed the three states to enter into a compact to purchase the requisite land. The amendment also reduced the geographic/historic features required to permit the establishment of the park.

The recognition of Cumberland Gap as a National Park was a matter of some debate. While virtually all historians agreed on its importance in American history, some expressed reservation over the development impacts on the historic values and historic scene. This impact was exemplified to some by the fact that a modern, paved highway passed through the primary resource. In addition, the development of Middlesboro, Kentucky in the 1890s had caused a number of mining activities to be conducted in the immediate region. By this account, Cumberland Gap was not what it was in the 18th Century, and thus anything but a pristine historic site.

It took fifteen years to complete the purchase of land as outlined in the 1940 legislation. Some of the delay was attributable to World War II and a necessary shift in national priorities. Most of the problems, however, centered on state funding levels, and the resistance of some land owners. Finally, on September 14, 1955 the title deeds from the three states were presented to the Secretary of the Interior, and Cumberland Gap National Historical Park was established. The total of the original purchase of land transferred to the Department of the Interior was 20,185.04 acres.

Cumberland Gap still serves as a major transportation corridor. Use of Hwy 25E shortens the distance between I-75 at Corbin, Kentucky and I-81 at Morristown, Tennessee by approximately 60 miles. As a result, this road carries an unusually heavy load of traffic. In 1973 Congress recognized the need for improvement to the outdated and dangerous roadway through the park. Public Law 93-87 directed the reconstruction and relocation of Route 25E through the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park including construction of a tunnel to permit the restoration of the Gap to its 1790-1800 appearance and provide adequate traffic capacity.

The Cumberland Gap Tunnel will be approximately 4200 feet in length and the route is approximately three-quarters of a mile west of the Gap through Tri-State Peak. Work on the project began in 1978. A landmark achievement was accomplished in 1986 when a pilot bore through the mountain was completed. Work commenced this year [1991] on the main tunnels. Scheduled for completion in 1995, the project will open a twin bore tunnel with each bone carrying two lanes of traffic. Estimated cost is approximately one-quarter of a billion dollars. For the National Park Service the opening will presage the largest restoration of a nationally significant historic resource ever attempted. In essence, the removal of Highway 25E from the Gap will present a singular opportunity to research, investigate, and ultimately reclaim this place.

National Park Service planning activities to date include the 1990 release of a Development Concept Plan and Interpretive Prospectus for the restoration of the Gap to its historic appearance and reestablishment of the Wilderness Road.

The primary significance of Cumberland Gap is the facet that a roadway passed through it. It was and is a transportation corridor, arguably the first and most significant landmark in the history of Trans-Appalachian settlement.

The unique conditions associated with the modern roadway have precluded any meaningful on-site interpretation. The effort to partially restore Cumberland Gap to its historic appearance will permit on-site interpretation about the inter-relationships of geography, topography, and commerce to be interwoven with the historic events. The history of Cumberland Gap is not static; it is continuing. The tunnel is the next chapter in that history.


Filson, John. The Discovery, Settlement, and Present State of Kentuckey [sic], (Wilmington, Delaware: 1784).

Hanna, Charles A. The Wilderness Trail (New York: 1911, Reprinted 1972).

Kincaid, Robert L. The Wilderness Road (Middlesboro, Kentucky, Fourth Edition: 1973).

Krakow, Jere L. Location of the Wilderness Road At Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (U.S. Department of the Interior/National Park Service: 1987).

Pusey, William A. The Wilderness Road to Kentucky, Its Location and Features (New York: 1921).

Speed, Thomas. The Wilderness Road: A Description of the Routes of Travel by Which the Pioneers and Early Settlers First Came to Kentucky (New York:1927).


Hammond, Neal O.
Early Roads Into Kentucky, Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, Vol. 68, No. 2 (April 1970).

Turner, Frederick Jackson.
The Significance of the Frontier in American History, Annual Report of the American Historical Association. 1893.

Unpublished Works

Tinney, Edward E., History of Cumberland Gap National Historical Park Administrative History, (Cumberland Gap NHP:1965).

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Last Updated: 30-Sep-2008