Photo above: Hensley Settlement within Cumberland Gap National Park. Right: View of fall colors at the park. Photos courtesy National Park Service.
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park
It's the gap in the mountain between the three states of Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky that allowed the mountain men west. Yes, Daniel Boone, now moving into the interior from his Pennsylvania upbringing, and his cohorts would ply the Indian paths through the Cumberland Gap to explore the valleys to their west. No, he wasn't the first, but yes, the most famous. Today, you can see remnants of the mountain men and the subsequent settlers in settlements that are preserved for your visit, you can descend into caves here long before either white settlement or Indian settlement were even a thought, or just marvel at the vistas of the mountains in either spring, summer, or fall. Cumberland Gap National Park, not far off the Interstate 81 corridor, provides a variety of nature, outdoors, and history fun, a park known more in the region than the nation, but waiting for your next adventures. Com'n Daniel, I need to visit a cave.
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Cumberland Gap Then
Cumberland Gap - The gap is a V-shaped dent in the Appalachian Mountains, allowing Indian tribes and later white settlers access to the western frontier in Kentucky from the original settlements in Virginia. Dr. Thomas Walker of the Loyal Land Company is often credited for its founding, although other white settlers had traveled there before. He set a western course on March 6, 1750, found the gap one month later, and described it for those that would follow. It began the migration west into the blue grass region of Kentucky and further inland. Daniel Boone began his adventures in the Gap and land west in 1769, missing the gap in a previous adventure two years earlier. He would trap and hunt the region with various conflicts with Indian tribes over the next four years before survey companies began to plot the Kentucky region for further settlement.
Gap Cave - Known by various names over the years, the cave has seen use by animals (15,000 years ago as evidence by the remains of a prehistoric bear found three miles in) and by humans 2,000-4,000 years ago. In more recent times, the cave was toured in 1750 by Dr. Thomas Walker, and during the Civil War, the cave was occupied by troops on both sides. Only minor skirmishes occurred at the Gap and both sides claimed it twice during the 1861-1865 timeframe. Some areas of the cave were used as a hospital and munition dump. When the idea of using the cave for tourists surfaced, an entrance was blasted in 1888 for tours by Major Cockrill known as King Solomon's Cave. It was acquired in 1920 by Lincoln Memorial University and renamed Cudjo's Cave after the fictional slave in a novel of the same name by James T. Trowbridge. It would be run by concessionaires until sold to the National Park Service.
Hensley Settlement - Inlaws Sherman Hensley and Willy Gibbons founded the small settlement in 1904 on part of a five hundred acre claim made in 1845 by the Brothers Bates, who would lease the land to others. In 1903, Barton Hensley bought the entire plot and subdivided it for members of his family. More than forty-five structures would be built, a high of one hundred people would live there around 1925, which dwindled to one in 1951.
Image above: Lithograph by Middleton, Stobridge, & Company, 1862-1865, of army troops passing through the Cumberland Gap during the Civil War. Courtesy Library of Congress. Below: Fall at the Hensley Settlement. Courtesy National Park Service.
Cumberland Gap Now
Cumberland Gap National Park is essentially a living history museum with its predominant feature, the natural gap through the mountains providing the impetus for settlement of the immediate region, exploits by pioneers such as Daniel Boone, and the subsequent settlement of Kentucky along the Wilderness Road. A visit provides a glimpse into the history predating the American Revolution, the history of the Civil War, and the history of the Appalachian region through the present day. Tours of the Hensley Settlement, an early 20th century community of one family which attempted to carve life north of the Gap with varying degrees of success, today brings life back to the hardscrabble existence the mountains provided. Inside the mountain itself, the caves of nature suggest a different story, one of natural wonder, plus man-made use after prehistoric bears roamed the indentations and soldiers made use of its natural protection while protecting the Gap for Confederate or Union purposes.
It's a park not thought of in the same terms as nearby wonders such as Shenandoah, the Blue Ridge Parkway, or Great Smoky Mountain National Park, although in many ways that's a shame. Take a trip on your way home from one of those and ply the paths of Indian heritage, a pioneer Boone, and Appalachian families who called the Cumberland Gap region home, or used it as a pathway to a home further afield. The somewhat odd combination of beneath the earth wonders and overlook beauty makes a nice foray from those better attended parks. And you can even stand at the spot Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee meet. Can't do that anywhere else, I don't think.
Gap Cave - Purchased by the National Park in 1992, once or twice per day cave tours are available, but sometimes fill up quickly. Check during the month prior to your visit and reserve a time to be safe.
Descendents of the early settlers remain in the ridges and valleys that proceed from the Cumberland Gap down the Wilderness Road. It's estimated that forty-seven million Americans come from the several hundred thousand settlers who used that path west. The Wilderness Road weaved from Roanoke, Virginia, to Lexington, Kentucky.
The area and park represent one part of the Appalachia culture that came from those settlers and remains today as an integral part of the region. Crafts in the Visitor Center show pieces of the handwork made in the past and kept alive in the traditions of today. The rough cabins and settlement buildings at Hensley lay testament to the conditions and life of the people who braved the mountain terrain and farmed the fields of the Gap. Restoration by the Job Corps of the Hensley Settlement began in 1965; it now serves as a living history museum.
T-Shirts and Souvenirs
Cumberland Gap T-Shirts and Souvenirs. Official gifts from Americabesthistory.com.
Things You Should Not Miss
1. The Cumberland Gap National Park Visitor center has two films to watch in the auditorium. They provide a great glimpse into the history of the Cumberland Gap region and a nice introduction to your stay. And they're high def. One, "Daniel Boone and the Westward Movement" (23 minutes) focuses on the pioneer days. The other, "The Cumberland Gap" (11 minutes) focuses more on the natural history, plus other park history.
2. Take a ranger guided tour. We suggest taking both main tours; the Gap Cave Tour and the Hensley Settlement Tour. They're very different, one focusing on what nature provided beneath the earth, and the other, what man tried to do to tame the land above it. The cave Tour takes only two hours, so if you only have one day here, that's probably the one to take. It does require a 1.5 mile walk and negotiating 183 steps. Children under five not allowed. The Hensley Settlement Tour takes a half day, includes a shuttle ride to the settlement, about a one mile walk, and a suggestion to bring a light snack and drinks. Other tours are sometimes available; ask at the Visitor Center when you arrive.
3. Trek to the Pinnacle Overlook. For those that can walk, it's four miles one way from the Visitor Center and provides a great glimpse into your surroundings, even before you reach the top and view those three states from it's 2,440 foot peak. In the northern part of the park, the White Rocks Overlook is also great. Ask where and what it takes to get there.
Photo above: Winter at the Hensley Settlement. Photo courtesy National Park Service. Below: Man with four children fronting a mountaineer cabin in the Cumberland Gap region circa 1919. Courtesy Library of Congress.