The Cumberland Gap is a low point in the Cumberland Mountains near where the states of Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia all meet. And it is, without a doubt, one of the most important pieces of land in American history.
Today, in our world of interstate superhighways, you might not even notice the gap if you weren't looking for it. But a long time ago, when people had to walk or take a horse to get from Point A to Point B, this relatively flat trail was the easiest way to get through the mountains. It was, therefore, the path generations of Native Americans and early pioneers took. Historians now estimate that between 1760 and 1850, almost 300,000 people walked, rode, or were carried through the Cumberland Gap.
The Cumberland Gap and some of the mountains around it is now a national historical park. We'll show you around.
The American pioneers weren't the ones who first "discovered" the Gap. Buffalo were migrating through the Cumberland Gap long before human beings did. Then, Native Americans used the gap for centuries, sometimes in peaceful trade missions and sometimes on the way to attack other tribes.
We also want to explain that the Cumberland Gap was a converging point for TWO major pioneering routes. The better known of the two was the Wilderness Road, which took pioneers from Northern Virginia to the present site of Louisville, Kentucky. A group of men led by Daniel Boone blazed the Wilderness Road in 1775, much of it along new passageways and some of it (such as in the area of the Cumberland Gap) along buffalo and Native American Trails.
Another pioneering route through the gap is sometimes known as the "Tennessee Road." People who left northeast Tennessee bound for Middle Tennessee came through the gap. When James Robertson led a party of men to settle French Lick (now Nashville) they came through the gap.
Now for some more recent history: Through most of the 20th century, a windy two-lane highway went through the gap itself. But a few years ago the two-lane road was removed and replaced with a four-lane tunnel that goes under the mountain. This mile-long tunnel is quite an adventure in itself. But its existence means that the gap itself is back to being a foot path, very much the way it would have looked to pioneers in the late 18th century (pretty cool, eh?)
There are short trails that take you to the gap from both directions. I recommend driving into the small town of Cumberland Gap, on the Tennessee side, and walking up from there. As you can see, it's a pretty place.
Now head up the trail. The first thing you'll see is the remains of an iron furnace, which was in operation from about 1820 until 1880 (except for the Civil War years). It was here that limestone and iron ore were heated by coal and converted to "pig iron," which was then shipped to factories.
If you look closely, you'll also see the remains of an inn where travelers would stop along the way.
Then, after a few twists and turns, you come out of the woods onto the gap itself. You'll know you have arrived because of two things: one, the trail stops going uphill and begins going downhill, and two, there is a small wooden sign that simply says "Historic Cumberland Gap." This is it: the "saddle" of the gap, or the exact place where the trail passes through the mountain pass.
A historian named Frederick Jackson Turner once said this: "Stand at Cumberland Gap and watch the progression of civilization, marching single file -- the buffalo following the trail to the salt springs, the Indian, the fur-trader and hunter, the cattle-raiser, the pioneer farmer -- and the frontier has passed by."
A little further you will see a big hole in the ground on the right side of the trail. This isn't a natural formation. During the Civil War, the gap was considered important strategically. At one point, retreating Union troops destroyed all their armaments and explosives, which were stored here, rather than let them fall into Confederate hands. The explosion was so great that it formed this hole in the ground.
Finally, you come to this structure, built at the exact spot where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia converge (Lines are drawn that show you the exact state lines). A few feet away you'll see a sign that indicates that this was the "Royal Colonial Boundary" of 1665. In other words, in 1665 surveyors established this spot to be the far edge of their American colony. Colonists weren't supposed to go any further into America than this spot.
We've only begun to scratch the surface about all there is to see and do at the Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.
There is a visitor's center, a road that takes you to an overlook called The Pinnacle, a number of Civil War places of significance, a cave you can tour, a preserved pioneer village called the Hensley Settlement, and much more.