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Cumberland Gap has some of America’s oldest history

By By Terry Robe
For the Sunday Gazette-Mail
Accessible from Tennessee Route 63, above LaFollette and at the end of two miles of uphill, hairpin driving, is McCloud Mountain Restaurant and Lodge (reservations required), with a spectacular view south over the Powell Valley to Norris Lake, House Mountain, Clinch Mountain and the Smokies. Photo by TERRY ROBE.
For a hike of medium difficulty leading to a gorgeous ridgeline view, visit Cumberland Trail State Park in Caryville, Tennessee. Eventually a 280-mile footpath will connect Signal Point, a Civil War site above Chattanooga, to Cumberland Gap National Historical Park. Photo by TERRY ROBE.
Tucked away in the Appalachian Mountains of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, the Olde Mill Inn Bed & Breakfast is nestled in the foothills of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. Photo by TERRY ROBE.
Float houses (shown) and houseboats are available for purchase or rent on Norris Lake. Photo by TERRY ROBE.
Cumberland Park National Historical Park scientist Amy Settles points out formations in Gap Cave. Photo by TERRY ROBE.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — It’s time to “fess” up: I sometimes confuse Davy Crockett with Daniel Boone.

I hope you’ll understand, since both frontiersmen were played on TV by Fess Parker.

At 6-foot-6, Parker was the tallest by far. Boone was just 5-foot-8. (That’s without a coonskin cap, since he didn’t wear one.)

In 1775, Boone blazed a 120-mile trail through Cumberland Gap, a north-south break in the Appalachians at what became the Kentucky-Tennessee border, just west of where the tail of Virginia slides in.

From the 1770s to 1810, 200,000 to 300,000 people passed through — in the early years, many barefoot and some on horseback — on their way to the Ohio Valley. Abe Lincoln’s parents made the trip (separately) in the 1780s, Thomas as a boy and Nancy as a babe in arms.

Kentucky became the first state west of the Appalachians in 1792. Tennessee followed in 1796, the year Boone’s Wilderness Road was widened for wagons. Soon there was a good deal of traffic eastbound, moving livestock and corn whiskey.

(Speaking of whiskey, the Wilderness Road later became famous as “Thunder Road,” the title of a 1958 movie starring Robert Mitchum about moonshine runners and their souped-up proto-stock cars. Licensed micro-distilleries now produce legal Tennessee “moonshine” and there is a White Lightning driving tour.)

The “Columbus of the Woods,” Boone is still a folk hero nearly 200 years after his death. Boone County in West Virginia is one of six counties named for him in different states. But he didn’t discover the Gap.

Bison and the American Indians who hunted them had been using the Gap for centuries, if not millennia.

In 1673, a man named Gabriel Arthur was sent by an English fur trader to make contact with the Cherokee. At the last minute, instead of being burned at the stake, he was adopted by a chief and began traveling with the tribe.

Arthur is believed to be the first European to cross the Gap (and may have been the first European to arrive in what is now West Virginia).

In the 19th century, canals and railroads took over. In the 1920s, Kentucky Route 25E — known as “Massacre Mountain” for its high accident rate — was built through the Gap. Funds to relocate 25E were authorized in 1973, but it took 23 years and $280 million to build the Cumberland Gap Tunnel. No toll, if you’re wondering.

The tunnel project cleared the way for the landscape’s restoration. You can now stroll in the footsteps of Boone; his predecessors, including Dr. Thomas Walker, who surveyed the area for the Loyal Land Co. in 1750; and the pioneers.

Them thar hills are chock-full of underground streams and springs. (The tunnel had to be lined with PVC.) This flowing and dripping water has sculpted out an extensive cave network, including Gap Cave, one of the main attractions in Cumberland Gap National Historical Park.

Two-hour cave tours leave daily at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Lantern flashlights are distributed to visitors, who are guided on a many-stepped path through 1½ miles of cave.

The rewards — colorful and varied formations surrounding pools of water, “rooms” of surprising dimensions, graffiti from Civil War soldiers — greatly outnumber the challenges — a few spots where the ceiling becomes very low, dripping water (see above) and, oh yes, bats.

The most common of the species that inhabit the cave is the little brown bat. The ones we saw were hanging quietly upside-down. We couldn’t help feeling sorry for them after we learned of white-nose syndrome, a fungus that kills bats by waking them up when they are hibernating.

This makes them use up body fat flying around when their insect prey is absent, starving and exhausting the little fellers.

Gap Cave was known as King Solomon’s Cave in the 1890s and had a long life as a tourist attraction known as Cudjo’s Cave, inspired by an 1864 novel about abolitionists and Union sympathizers who hide out in a cave occupied by two escaped slaves.

Although the visitor center, with exhibits and a bookstore and shop, is on the Kentucky side, other parts of the park are in Tennessee and Virginia. (Daniel Boone: “I can’t say as ever I was lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.”)

There is a marker where one can stand in all three states and it is an easy climb to Pinnacle Overlook, elevation 2,440 feet.

Bypassed by the new 25E, the village of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, has the feeling of a charming if forgotten frontier outpost. There are 19th- and early 20th-century homes and commercial buildings, some containing old-timey shops; two covered bridges; the remains of an iron furnace; a 3,746-foot former railroad tunnel, open to walkers; and the Little Congress Bicycle Museums (a labor of love).

The Pineapple Tea Room offers home-style meals and unforgettable banana pudding.

To see the town come to life with storytellers, crafters, family history experts and re-enactors, visit June 12-14 for the Genealogy Jamboree, which concludes with Pioneer Day, when “Daniel Boone and the 30 axe men that cut the Wilderness Road come into the Gap at noon.”

From Charleston, it takes about five hours to reach the area via Interstate 64 west to Lexington and Interstate 75 south to Corbin. From Corbin, Kentucky Route 25E meanders to Middlesboro, on the Kentucky side of the Cumberland Gap Tunnel.

Once through the tunnel, several Tennessee points of interest — such as Lincoln Memorial University’s museum of Lincolniana — are accessible from Tennessee Route 63, heading west.

Up a steep and GPS-free road on a nearby hill is the Hatfield Knob Wildlife Viewing Stand, where members of an elk herd estimated at 450 animals may be seen. (I said may — this isn’t a zoo.) Elk were reintroduced in 2000 from Elk Island in the Canadian province of Alberta.

Worth a detour to the south is Norris Lake, the multi-recreational byproduct of Norris Dam, the Tennessee Valley Authority’s original project.

On June 28, Sequoyah Marina will host the “Fire on the Water” fireworks show.

In Caryville, one can pick up Interstate 75 North and — as even Daniel Boone (or was it Davy Crockett?) was known to do — head home.

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