Tennessee – Cumberland Gap: An Opening to the West

We tend to take our roads and highways for granted, but a visit to the eastern highlands of Tennessee gave us a reminder of what it was like for those early pioneers who ventured into this area.  One of the first signs we read at the Cumberland Gap Historic National Park offered a sharp reminder: “For 400 miles north of the Cumberland Gap, the Appalachian Mountains presented an invincible barrier to early settlers in the mid-Atlantic area and the Carolinas.”   

By the mid-1700s some people began to feel the need to move on to new land in the West.  For some, the cities were too confining and the land around them had become too expensive for them to afford.  Others had received Revolutionary War land grants in “Kentucke” as the current Tennessee and Kentucky area was known.  I find it interesting to think of the West as Tennessee and Kentucky, but in the mid- to late-1700s that area was a wilderness and Indian country. 

Early pioneers followed a trail through Cumberland Gap that had been originally beaten down by buffalo, deer and other animals.  Native Americans had come next, following the migrating herds of buffalo as did a few explorers and trappers. 

Many early arrivals found their ownership in this new land disputed.  Some of the area had been purchased from the Indians, but not all of the Native Americans were represented or involved in the process or even aware of its existence; and most of them did not share an understanding the white man’s concept of land ownership.  Settlers were not guaranteed welcoming neighbors.

But that didn’t stop the flow once it started.  In the years between 1775 and 1810, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 people, mostly from Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, passed through the Cumberland Gap.  The earliest pioneers climbed these rugged inclines on horseback and on foot, carrying their meager possessions.  How resolute they must have been to face a new life with nothing more than the clothes on their backs, their rifles and ammunition for food and defense, cooking implements and farming tools.  A few made room for the luxury of a book or a Bible. 

There were 195 miles between settlements and for these early pioneers this was a one-way trip.  They were leaving behind family, friends and life as they had known it.  There was no shelter along the route and they pushed on through rain, snow and ice in the winter to reach their dream.

Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier” and of Alamo fame, was born in this remote corner of Tennessee.  He is one of the men credited with leading others along this trail.  He knew the dangers well, having had fought in the Creek Indian War.  In spite of the hazards, some of those who made the passage followed him and his famous coon-skin cap up this trail and over the mountains into the promise of new land.

Eventually, the trail was widened to allow for wagons so the passage became somewhat easier but more expensive with toll stations added to fund the maintenance and improvement of the road.  By this time the traffic was moving in both directions with farmers taking animals and produce to markets east of the mountains. 

Today this area is the Cumberland Gap National Park, and it encompasses over 20,000 acres of wilderness with outstanding opportunities for hiking and camping.  Within the park there is a cornerstone that marks the point where the borders of Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee meet. 

The park also encompasses the Town of Cumberland Gap.  Even now the town is remote enough to not have been disturbed by development; and as a result it has some charming historic buildings that now house shops, antique stores, cafes and B&Bs. 

As we drove away, I thought about what a relief those early settlers must have felt once they bested the Gap.  I imagined them heaving a sign of pleasure as they traveled this portion of their route with its broad, smooth valley between two wooded ridges. 

The campus of Lincoln Memorial University (Harrogate, TN) is on this route and it borders Cumberland Gap Park.  Its library houses a large collection of Abraham Lincoln and Civil War memorabilia, so on the drive back down, we stopped to visit the campus.  The school seems somewhat oddly named for an institution in a state that had succeeded from the Union to join the Confederacy, but Abraham Lincoln was born in Tennessee and many people in East Tennessee were loyal to the Union during the Civil War.  The school was chartered on Lincoln’s birthday in 1897.  Today, the school is a private liberal arts university and home to a college of Veterinary Medicine, Osteopathic Medicine and Law.     

After touring the library we continued down the highway toward Knoxville, but we stopped along the way in Duff, Tennessee, for lunch at the McCloud Mountain Lodge and Restaurant.  McCloud Mountain is essentially a private development with a gatehouse at the entrance; however, entrance is allowed if you stop and register.  After doing this we continued snaking our way up the well-paved road. 

We had never seen a caution sign like the one that was posted at the beginning of this route, and after reaching the top of the mountain, we felt it was highly accurate.   

While at the Lodge with its 2,700-foot elevation, we enjoyed dramatic views of the Cumberland Mountain Range and the valley below from the restaurant’s wide and multi-level deck.  A map on our table helped us identify points of interest such as Clinch Mountain, peaks in the Smoky Mountains, and the TVA’s Norris Lake, the first in the chain of lakes they created to bring electricity to this region.

Even more dramatic are the rock formations that are just down the road from the lodge and restaurant. 

If you are looking for open spaces and views of the mountains, you may want to consider a visit to Cumberland Gap.  This is a lovely and interesting historic alternative to the honky-tonk offerings around East Tennessee’s other and much more visited Smoky Mountain National Park.  

With tourist season seemingly lasting all year in areas like Pigeon Forge, Sevierville and Gatlinburg the roads are jammed.  A drive around the Park’s Cades Cove can mean an exhaust-choked crawl down its one-lane, one-way circle route while tourists stop traffic to take photos of flowers, log cabins, and wild animals. 

So again, I suggest a detour to the “road less traveled” but just as rewarding with spectacular and peaceful scenery.

FOR MORE ADVENTURE: We continue our travels to Rugby, the utopian town created for the second sons of English aristocrats.

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