Tag Archives: Cumberland Gap

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park – My last Southeastern park

On Cumberland Gap
On Cumberland Gap

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (CUGA) is only two and a half hours from Asheville.

The first sign for CUGA is over fifty-five miles away as I get off I-81 and unto US 25E. Here the local road name is Davy Crockett Parkway, when I’m all psyched about going into Daniel Boone Country. However, Crockett was born in east Tennessee, while Boone was just passing through. Boone, born in Pennsylvania, grew up on the Yadkin River Valley in North Carolina.

I expected to learn about Daniel Boone, but the park is so much more. I already wrote about the Hensley Settlement. The park seems to be changing to adjust to the times. The highlight is Cumberland Gap.

I park at Thomas Walker parking area and walk the Object Lesson Road, an ominous name. The gravel road was built in 1907 and funded by the Federal Government to convince voters of the convenience of good roads. This gravel road takes me to Cumberland Gap. The gap isn’t large but it has this sweet sign, which says.

Salt seeking buffalo
Moccasin clad warrior
Dreaming pioneer
Battling Civil War soldier
Each was here in the Cumberland Gap and now so are you.

That pretty much encapsulates the history of Cumberland Gap. At 1,600 feet elevation, the gap was the lowest point where people in the southern states could cross the Appalachian Mountains. To put it in perspective, Newfound Gap at the Tennessee-North Carolina boundary is at 5,000 feet.

Dr. Thomas Walker was the first white man to explore and write about the gap in 1750. He was said to discover the gap, something that the Indians had known for centuries. American Indians created the Warrior Path, while hunting bison. But Walker gets the credit because he wrote about the gap, which to me shows the power of documentation.

In 1769, Daniel Boone first came through the gap. Land speculator Richard Henderson commissioned Boone to lead a group of axmen to blaze a trail, which became known as the Wilderness Trail. When we say blaze in this case, we don’t mean that they painted white blazes on trees like the Appalachian Trail. They cut a path through the gap with axes, literally opening up Kentucky to settlers. That encouraged 200,000 to 300,000 settlers to cross Cumberland Gap looking for their own piece of land. Meriwether Lewis and William Clark walked through the gap, separately, in 1806 when they returned from their western expeditions.

Royal Colonial Boundary of 1666
Royal Colonial Boundary of 1666

A side trail veers off to Tri-State Peak, where you can stand in three states: Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Each state has a plaque with its vital statistic, straight out of an encyclopedia – capitol, state bird, state flower, number of counties. A sign for the Royal Colonial Boundary of 1665 marks the border between the Colony of Virginia and the Province of Carolina from the Atlantic Ocean westward across North America.

I continue down the Wilderness Trail, stopping at the Iron Furnace and the entrance to Gap Cave. I want to retrace my steps to go back up to the gap into Kentucky the way settlers did it. At the gap, I take the Wilderness Road Trail, which is supposed to be part of the original Boone trail, dated 1780 to 1810.

Daniel Boone Trail marker
Daniel Boone Trail marker

The Daughters of the American Revolution placed a massive four-sided rock structure to commemorate the Daniel Boone Trail. The DAR from Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina–Boone did live in North Carolina — have put up a plaque for their state. They all include the words “From North Carolina to Kentucky.” The DAR is everywhere.

I read that the trail through the gap used to be the old US 25E. I find it hard to picture it as I walk back up what was the southbound lane of the old highway. For decades, a modern highway went right up to the historic gap. As cars and trucks came through the gap, it was called Massacre Mountain, because of the number of accidents. In 1996, US 25E was rerouted by building a tunnel through Cumberland Mountain from Tennessee to Kentucky. Later Congress appropriated funds to restore the gap to its historic condition. In 2001, the park service removed the concrete and reshaped the contour to what it was supposed to be during Daniel Boone’s time. I walk to the gap and I can’t see any sign of a highway, which means that the reroute was a success.

I’ve been everywhere, man, I’ve been everywhere!

CUGA is the last park in my quest to visit all the national parks in the Southeast, seventy-one (71) in all. I first visited parks in a thorough, deliberate manner in 2010, though I had been to many national parks before. This five-year project took me from Jean Lafitte in Louisiana to Cape Lookout in North Carolina, Christiansted in the Virgin Islands to Cumberland Gap in Kentucky. Now comes the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service and my book, Forests, Alligators, Battlefields: My journey through the national parks of the south.

Hensley Settlement at Cumberland Gap

Hensley Settlement
Hensley Settlement

Don’t confuse the park with what they’re trying to preserve. I keep telling myself that as I wander around the Hensley Settlement at Cumberland Gap National Historic Site.

Daniel Boone first came through Cumberland Gap in 1769. Later he brought a group of settlers over the gap so that they could make a better life for themselves in the fertile land of the Ohio River Valley.

Sherman Hensley brought his wife and growing family to the top of Brush Mountain in 1903. They were going back in time, living a pioneer life without even a road. They certainly never had electricity. Several other related families settled on this high plateau. They were successful in that at their zenith, the community had 50 to 100 people and forty structures – houses, barns, corn mill, and blacksmith shop. The park signs say that the Hensley settlement used the same frontier skills that their great-great-grandfathers used in the mountain hollows in the 1800s.

But why go back to pioneer ways? The park information doesn’t really explain but leads you to believe that the male leaders wanted to live a self-sufficient life on their own land. A chat with a ranger and a little searching around leads me to a more believable answer. It was an easy place to make moonshine.

Dwarf-crested Irises
Dwarf-crested Irises

You can visit the Hensley settlement on a ranger-led tour, which starts mid-May. But I was here now, and the road is closed at other times. So the only way was to walk the Shillalah Creek Road over ten miles round-trip to get to the settlement. It was a sunny spring day. Dwarf-crested irises and other spring flowers lined the trail, keeping me amused as I plodded up.

The park has preserved 67 acres. Many buildings and fences have been restored. Of most interest was the schoolhouse, though the building was locked. Most children went to school until they were nine years old. Then they were put to work. Men went into town about once a week, but a woman only once every several weeks. Children never got off the mountain until they were adults. The last person left in 1951. By then, most men had gotten better jobs in factories.

Old man Hensley had twenty-three children, all apparently with the same woman. The cemetery is very telling about the status of women in the settlement. Sherman and his wife are only one of two double graves with fancy headstones.

20150418CUGA02 020A Sherman lived to be 98 years old but his wife, Nicy Ann, died when she was 53. Or was it Nicey, as it says on the footstone, along with a different birth date.

20150418CUGA02 022A They couldn’t even get her personal details right. The women who lived in the coal mining camp at Big South Fork were positively liberated, compared to this settlement.

I meet a father and daughter who came up by horseback and discuss the status of women in this isolated community. In contrast, some bloggers who visited the settlement with rangers wax poetic about the birds chirping and the simple life.

I don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t like my visit to the settlement. I question the picture of the idyllic lifestyle. I try not to confuse the park with the resource it’s trying to preserve.