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The Cumberland Gap is a V-shaped passage through the Appalachian Mountains at the intersection of Kentucky, Virginia, and Tennessee. Aided by continental shifts, a meteorite impact, and flowing water, the Cumberland Gap region has become a visual marvel and a timeless asset to human and animal migration. Today, the Cumberland Gap National Historic Park acts as a preserve for this historic gateway.
Geologic History of Cumberland Gap
Beginning over 300 million years ago, geologic processes built the Appalachian Mountains and later carved a passage through them. The collision of the European and North American continental plates forced present day North America below sea level. The remains of water dwelling creatures settled and formed limestone rock, later overlain by shale and sandstone, providing the groundwork for a pending mountain range. Roughly 100 million years later, North America collided with Africa, causing the young pliable rock to fold and uplift. This collision resulted in the rippled and crumpled appearance of the United States eastern seaboard, now known as the Appalachian Mountains.
It is widely accepted that the Cumberland Gap in Appalachia was formed by flowing water during the continental plate collisions. A recent theory belonging to historical geographer Barry Vann suggests a more complex narrative: running water did indeed have a role in forming the gap, but science indicates its creation was aided by an impact from outer space.
The Cumberland Gap is a passageway running through Cumberland Mountain at the Virginia-Kentucky border. Lying south of the Middlesboro Basin in Kentucky, geologists have found evidence of an ancient meteor crater adjacent to the Cumberland Gap. Creating the now hidden Middlesboro Crater, this violent impact excavated portions of loose soil and rock from nearby mountains. This shaped the passage and allowed water to flow through, helping carve the Cumberland Gap into what it is today.
An American Gateway
The Appalachian Mountains have long been an obstacle in animal migration, and American westward expansion. It is reported that there are only three natural pathways through the treacherous valleys and ridges, one being the Cumberland Gap. During the last ice age, herds of animals in search of food and warmth used this passage to migrate south. The trail became an asset to Native American groups as well, assisting them during times of war and westward migration. With time and European influence, this rustic footpath became a refined road.
During the 1600s, European hunters spread word about a notch cutting through the mountains. In 1750, physician and explorer Thomas Walker encountered this Appalachian wonder. After exploring a nearby cavern, he referred to it as “Cave Gap.” He came upon a river just north of the gap and named it “Cumberland” after the Duke of Cumberland, son of King George II. The Cumberland Gap passage was named after Walker's Cumberland River.
In 1775, Daniel Boone and a party of woodsmen were the first to mark the Cumberland Gap trail, as they traveled from Virginia to Kentucky. After the passage gained a steady stream of settlers, the state of Kentucky was admitted into the Union. Up until 1810, the Cumberland Gap was known as “the way West.” Between the 18th and 19th centuries, it served as a travel corridor for over 200,000 migrants. The Cumberland Gap remained a major route for travel and trade during the 20th century.
Cumberland Gap 21st Century Operation
In 1980, engineers began a seventeen-year feat at the Cumberland Gap. Completed in October of 1996, the 280-million-dollar Cumberland Gap Tunnel is 4,600 feet long. The east entrance is in Tennessee, and the west entrance is in Kentucky. Although the Gap exists at the intersection of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia, the tunnel itself just misses the state of Virginia by 1,000 feet. This four-lane tunnel is an asset to transportation throughout the region.
Providing a direct link between the town of Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, the tunnel replaces a two-mile section of the U.S. Route 25E. Previously known as “Massacre Mountain,” the U.S. 25E followed the historic wagon trail and the dangerous curves of the primitive passage. This highway has seen many deaths, and Kentucky officials say the Cumberland Gap Tunnel is safer for motorists, eliminating much of the hazard.
According to a 1996 article from the Lexington-Herald Leader, the Cumberland Gap Tunnel “has spurred highway expansion in three states, hopes for tourism in small communities near the Gap, and dreams of restoring the wilderness trail that Daniel Boone blazed in the 1700s.” By the year 2020, the number of cars passing through the Gap per day is expected to climb to 35,000.
Cumberland Gap National Park
The Cumberland Gap National Historic Park extends for 20 miles and ranges between one and four miles in width. It is over 20,000 acres, 14,000 of which remain wilderness. Regional flora and fauna include nearly 60 rare plant species, an abundance of kudzu, wild turkey, and black bear, among an assortment of others. Featuring historic buildings and caves, the park offers visitors a glimpse of what helped shape the nation. They can trace the experiences of early explorers through hiking trails, scenic vistas, guided tours, and cave expeditions.
Cumberland Gap, Tennessee
Cradled at the foot of the Cumberland Mountains, the town of Cumberland Gap is known for its historic charm. Visitors can enjoy a view of the town and tri-state area from 1,200 feet at a nearby mountain peak called Pinnacle Overlook. The town is quaint, and has merely three humble lodging establishments. There are unique craft and antique shops, restoring the spirit of colonial America.
According to one visitor, “Cumberland Gap is kinda like walking into a Norman Rockwell Painting.” From the national park and historic town, to the geologic and technological splendor that is Cumberland Gap, this region is certainly worth a second glance.